Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
The date is May 7, 1999. Hollywood is still blatantly sexist, the much-anticipated Star Wars prequel, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, won’t wow audiences with its extensive use of computer-generated visual effects for another week, and an action/adventure movie called The Mummy opens featuring Brendan Fraser, a guy mostly known for his comedic turn in George of the Jungle.
The Mummy became a sleeper hit, earning back half of its $80 million budget over the course of its opening weekend and eventually grossing $416 million worldwide. But before that, the production was like a game of musical chairs. Famed horror-mongering filmmakers like George A. Romero and Wes Craven were tapped to bring the classic Universal Studios monster (back) to life, but they – and a host of other writers and directors – eventually dropped out, and it was Stephen Sommers who ended up taking the helm, transforming the narrative into a fantasy-infused, Indiana Jones-like adventure.
I had you at “Indiana Jones,” right? Brendan Fraser was and is no Harrison Ford, but his rascally Rick O’Connell is attractive in a sand swept kind of way and just charming enough to make it not weird when he eventually Gets the Girl. He’s more swashbuckling pirate than hipster-brainy archaeologist, but that opens up room for Rachel Weisz’s delightful Evelyn Carnahan to show the boys how the proper study of ancient Egyptian artifacts is done. (More on Evie later.)
It’s tempting to compare this original version of The Mummy to the enormous flop that is the recently released reboot starring (who else?) Tom Cruise, and doing so would certainly shed light on what makes the 2017 version so bad and the 1999 version so beloved. (One positive of the 2017 version of The Mummy is that it gender-swaps the titular monster, adding a whopping one – count it! One! – female cast member to the mix, bringing the grand total number of women in the film to…two!) But I’d mostly like to assess the 1999 film on its own merit and not simply as an exercise in nostalgia.
The Mummy opens with the founding legend, as most of these movie types do. Our narrator and storyteller is Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), a descendant of Pharaoh’s sacred bodyguards and the leader of a group of hooded men tasked with guarding the hidden city of Hamunaptra, where Pharaoh’s traitorous high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is buried. As Ardeth Bay recounts, Imhotep and the Pharaoh’s concubine, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), were carrying out an illicit relationship behind Pharaoh’s back (probably because of True Love and all that). When Pharaoh found out, he condemned Imhotep to a brutally slow death, but Anck-Su-Namun killed herself before Pharaoh could get to her, declaring “My body is no longer his temple!”
A couple thousand years later, in 1923, Ardeth Bay and his cohorts have vowed to guard Imhotep’s tomb from riches-seeking raiders, much to the chagrin of Rick O’Connell and his band of merry men. As the two sides line up for a standoff, one smart guy makes a run for it, and Rick’s funny but sleazy sidekick Beni Gabor (Kevin J. O’Connor, sounding for all the world like Hank Azaria) turns tail as well. The ensuing skirmish is what you’d expect – lots of yelling and pinpoint-accurate knife-throwing and face-planting in the sand – and it’s all in good fun because the movie has just begun and the stakes are non-existent. Rick, channeling another Harrison Ford icon named Han Solo, irascibly but competently dispatches his share of combatants, prevailing despite the odds – and mostly because a deus ex machina appears just as it seems like he’s done for.
I mean all of this as praise. The Mummy is silly, but the silliness is what makes it so much fun. By embracing its campiness at the outset, The Mummy gives viewers permission to sidestep quibbles of ethics and practicality (how many people and animals died on that burning boat? Where is law enforcement during all this?) in order to enjoy the supernatural curses, the quippy banter, and the visual spectacle.
Narratively speaking, the script is clever but not contrived. The aforementioned deus ex machina moment re-occurs towards the end of the film, and the repetition turns a hackneyed trope into a comedic gag. All seriousness is sucked out of a battle scene when posh, British gentleman Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) enthusiastically swigs from a bottle while fighting, even going to far as to magnanimously share his drink with “the enemy.” It’s a movie where everyone speaks with foreshadow-y irony, threats always come true, and nasty people get their comeuppance. Rick himself shamelessly sums up the movie while attempting to recruit an old fighter pilot to their cause, telling him that they’re on their way to “rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, and save the world.” Sounds about right.
Horror fans get their fix as well: body parts are gouged out (though not onscreen, of course), bugs scuttle under skin, ancient Egyptians are mummified alive, and faces are burned off. The CGI in the film is actually pretty impressive, with the villainous mummy hogging most of the noticeable effects. Plus: historic film composer Jerry Goldsmith delivers a rousing, peppy soundtrack to complement the action.
We must not forget Evelyn Carnahan, the brilliant, bumbling librarian who serves as the sole female presence in The Mummy – and what a presence she is. Of course, given the expectations of the era (1999, what a backwards time!), Evie is destined to become the love interest, the damsel in distress, and the object of desire for the antagonist. But for the most part, the film respects her: Sommers spends a disproportionately long time introducing her character, with a sequence of scenes that set up a sympathetic backstory (her parents were big-shots) and establish her internal motivations (she wants to carve her own path). Evie is not just your average, flouncy female sidekick – she is instantly likable and instantly relatable, and it’s because her character has depth.
In sum? Make sure to hearken back to The Mummy if you enjoy archaeological hijinks, Indiana Jones-types, Rachel Weisz being sassy, and a rollicking good time. Just make sure not to read aloud from any ancient Egyptian textbooks – because that mummy is ready to rumble.