sovay: (I Claudius)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2017-09-08 12:46 am
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And did I panic? I think not

I did not see Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999) when it came out in the spring of my senior year of high school. At that point in my life I watched very few movies and when I did they were mostly social activities or taped off the television in black and white and this one looked big, loud, stupid, and above all not Boris Karloff. My then-boyfriend saw it without me; he reported a lot of computer-generated gore and scarabs. I didn't bother. Flash forward eighteen years and all of a sudden I'm seeing The Mummy and its first sequel namechecked everywhere as paramount examples of heroic female geekery and a het romance that actually works. Yesterday was characterized by exhaustion and eye-crossing headache and I needed a distraction, so I got a slightly scratched DVD out of the library and decided to see what I was missing.

The film is big, and it is loud, and the Orientalism goes up to eleven, but it knows it's not Boris Karloff and I don't think it's stupid. It's adventure pulp made by people who knew Spielberg was never going to come through with the further exploits of Indiana Jones—and must have felt smug when he finally did and they were The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)—and while the generation loss of making a homage to a homage could have left The Mummy insubstantial and ironic, instead it plays with the breezy fast pace and selectively sidestepped tropes of a blockbuster that looks like everyone who made it actually had fun. Rachel Weisz as Evie Carnahan is a one-woman screwball comedy, bespectacled as Cary Grant, chaos-making as Katharine Hepburn; still so young that she's curly-haired and kitten-faced, she's also the most accomplished Egyptologist in the story ("Take that, Bembridge scholars!") and I couldn't help noticing that while the climax does find her in need of rescue from your traditional lost-love resurrection ritual, the bulk of the plot on either side turns directly on her actions, from pursuing a childhood dream of the lost city of Hamunaptra to identifying a crucial hieroglyph by rather shaky description alone while dodging a priesthood's worth of murderous mummies. Opposite her, Brendan Fraser as soldier of fortune Rick O'Connell has to be good in order not to get wiped out of his own top billing and he is—he can do casual rugged heroism with tongue discreetly in cheek, he looks splendid in the Army-cut fashions of the '20's, and it gets funnier every time he reacts to the intimidating roar of something evil by screaming his face off right back at it. They fall in love like all the best adventurers, doing absurdly competent and foolhardy things while looking as though they can't believe their luck that the other person is right there alongside them. Kevin O'Connor is such an unapologetic weasel as Beni, ex-Legionnaire turned mummy's Renfield, that despite the script's explicit warning that "nasty little fellows such as yourself always get their comeuppance," I was still sorry to see him get his, and John Hannah's Jonathan Carnahan proves that I am incapable of not overthinking even summer blockbuster pulp, because when I see, in 1926, a young-ish Englishman that drunk, that flippant, and that good with firearms, I can't help wondering if his war was the Western Front or the Mesopotamian campaign. I am pretty sure that Odad Fehr's Ardeth Bay survives his heroic self-sacrifice by sheer force of beauty, but with that profile and those tattoos I'll buy it. And Arnold Vosloo makes a surprisingly effective Imhotep who resembles his 1932 incarnation only in his love for a woman three thousand years gone; he spends most of the movie in a partial state of motion capture, but whenever he's more or less human, he is as intense and solemn as if he's starring in a romantic tragedy, not a monster movie, which from his perspective is true enough.

From everyone else's, of course, it is a monster movie, with faces emerging hollow-mouthed from sandstorms and gem-like scarabs slithering under people's skin and skeletal mummies clashing swords like the return of Ray Harryhausen. The plot is the sort of thing you expect when no one in an ancient Egyptian royal court sees the potential blowback of deploying a curse whose object can, if exposed to the right incantations, come back as an immortal sand demon with the power to summon plagues from a different mythology entirely, and no one in the present day believes in the existence of such curses except for the hereditary caste of warriors who have become as mythical as the sand-drowned city they guard. There are seekers of knowledge versus hunters of treasure, the return of the repressed in sun-snuffing style. Everybody gets at least one moment of pure heroism and one moment of pure comedy and sometimes they're the same thing. Refreshingly, for all the prevailing goofiness, the script has few true moments of idiot plot and they are at least doozies when they arrive. (It's a nice gruesome touch when Imhotep begins to supplement his eviscerated body with living organs harvested from the disturbers of his tomb, but then he should spend the rest of the movie bumping into furniture, since those shiny new eyeballs of his came from a man who canonically had trouble finding his way down a hallway after his glasses were knocked off.) The CGI does not hold up, exactly, but for the most part it's not objectionable and even pulls off some nice effects that don't need to look naturalistic, like the spirit of Patricia Velásquez's Anck-su-namun boiling thickly out of a sacred pool with the weird purplish sheen of corona discharge, eddying over her vacant body without ever quite settling into recognizable human shape.

What really does not hold up, and honestly should not have even in 1999, is the racism. There is a redshirt in the form of a corrupt prison warden who accompanies our heroes to Hamunaptra; he is played by Omid Djalili and his purpose is to demonstrate how dangerous it is to go wandering off alone in a city haunted by an undead high priest and his cursed followers, but I feel this could have been accomplished without jokes that would not have been out of place in Girl of the Port (1930). I mean, I appreciate that the script tries to be even-handed with its stereotypes by making the rival team of treasure-hunting Americans a bunch of gung-ho literal cowboys, but the fact remains that trigger-happy Yankees are less flatly offensive than an Arab character hawking and spitting on cue of a British character's disgusted remark about the expectoratory habits of camels. I have less trouble with Beni because he is so generically Eurotrash, like a turbo-charged Peter Lorre caricature; after Erick Avari's indignant introduction, it's nice to discover that his obstructive curator of the Cairo Museum of Antiquities is more than he seemed when he was chewing Evie out for trashing his library before half-destroying Jonathan's tattered, ancient find of a map. I almost wish more had been made of the casual reveal that the Carnahan siblings are, despite their all-British names and received pronunciation, half-Egyptian—"You see, my father was a very, very famous explorer and he loved Egypt so much, he married my mother, who was an Egyptian and quite an adventurer herself"—although that would have raised even more strongly the question of appropriate casting. (Send help, I just pictured Siddig El Fadil as Jonathan and now I am wistful.) There are conventions of adventure pulp that simply no longer need to be observed and I am sorry The Mummy thought its period setting would gloss them. I prefer when it remembers to subvert all of its tropes, as with the fact that Ardeth Bay's Medjai know damn well where the lost city is, they just don't want anybody visiting.

I have been awake since seven o'clock this morning and spent the day traveling and write this review from a motel in Pennsylvania while [personal profile] spatch catches up on the news on the bed behind me; I don't know what else I can say about this movie except that it is on the whole a really adorable adventure with a couple of sour notes I wish it hadn't struck and the people who recommend it for its heroine were right. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it in high school. I had much less experience of pulp in any form and might have bounced off the three-way mash-up of horror, humor, and action, especially since I thought I disliked two of those genres for years. (I thought I disliked alcohol for years. It turned out what I disliked was the kinds of alcohol college students think is a good idea. So too with horror film and action movies.) I suspect I would have enjoyed Evie; nerd heroes are rare and female nerd heroes practically unicorns. I would have been very impressed by Anck-su-namun's costume, which I did not realize was primarily body paint until it smudged under Imhotep's hands. I would have liked Jonathan, but that is predictable: he is light-fingered and almost resolutely irresponsible, but not actually stupid; bashes his way through hieroglyphs decently enough for magic and picks a plot-relevant pocket not once but three times in the film, each time with aplomb. I remember picking up the novelization in the Waldenbooks where I worked in the late '90's and early 2000's, but I don't remember anything about it except one stray line that evidently changed between shooting script and final cut. I haven't been able to get hold of Michael Almereyda's Trance/The Eternal (1998) and I wanted something with mummies even if they didn't come out of a bog. This excavation brought to you by my library-loving backers at Patreon.
lost_spook: (Dracula)

[personal profile] lost_spook 2017-09-08 07:36 am (UTC)(link)
might have bounced off the three-way mash-up of horror, humor, and action, especially since I thought I disliked two of those genres for years.

Ha, me too. But I did love The Mummy when I saw it anyway, but given that I am/was a librarian... (Everyone else in the cinema laughed at the librarian line, except me. ;-D) And I still think I don't like horror or action, except when I do.

It is lovely fun, though, isn't it? It's hard not to forgive it pretty much anything, even when maybe I shouldn't. It isn't every summer you get a blockbuster that has a librarian heroine!

(The sequel isn't quite as glorious, but it does some interesting and fun things as well, rather than being a mere re-run. I've never dared see the third because I really don't see what the point is without Rachel Weisz as Evy.)