The Mummy (1999) Revisited

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The Mummy. A film “only” 17 years old, but so much has changed in these 17 years, especially in Hollywood. Watching The Mummy again now feels like unearthing some ancient, dust-covered relic from the aeons-dead crypts of Universal pictures. The Mummy itself feels like a mummified treasure, but, once you watch the film something starts haunting you. And that is the innocent simplicity of the film as it comes from a more innocent time of film making.

The Mummy puts a curse on us to remember a time when action movies were simpler. The film starts off with a lengthy prologue that tells us about Imhotep, the mummy, and we don’t meet the main action hero till 8 minutes into the film. The story has an episodic progression, moving from one simple scene to the next as a chronological travelogue, and there is a nice balance between action and comedy. Still, The Mummy shows the first signs of what was to come. Already, many CGI effects fill the film, and it started a horrible franchise too.

Here are two things I like about this film: 1) Brendan Fraser as O’Connoll. He is horribly missed. What happened to him? Why did he disappear from Hollywood blockbusters? I always thought he and Rachel Weisz made a lovely adventurous couple. A real rip-off of Indiana Jones and his women, of course. Or perhaps even from Han Solo and Leia, because Fraser plays a scoundrel and Weisz a decent librarian who turns into an action hero. Both actors are very sympathetic, although Weisz is a bit too demure and damsel-y for modern times.

2) O’Connoll’s Egyptian competitor Beni. He’s relentlessly cowardly and has this high squeaky voice like Bobcat Goldthwait and he’s just the most hilarious guy. This is one of those “they don’t make them like they used to”, because nowadays a comedic-relief character would be loud and obnoxious and say stupid things all the time. There’s also a second comedic-relief character in the shape of Weisz’s brother Jonathan, but he’s annoying. I guess he is more like a contrasting counterpart to Fraser. Fraser plays the rough, grounded action hero while Jonathan is silly and greed-obsessed. He’s Evy’s brother so that he is no competition to Fraser for the inevitable love story.

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Jerry Goldsmith’s music is also somehow a thing of the past. I mean, I know that the composer passed away, but the intricacy and frivolity that his music shows is strangely absent nowadays in the droning rhythms of Hans Zimmer and associates. The Mummy is blessed with a wonderful score.

Sadly, though, it just isn’t the classic that we might want it to be. After an entertaining first act, the story devolves into non-stop running and fighting. Arnold Vosloo as the mummy wanders around Cairo, screaming, and O’Connoll and Evy run back and forth in panic (I could have sworn it was Vincent D’Onofrio playing the mummy. How weird). What is supposed to be the real meat of the film – the mummy resurrected – is less interesting than the journey to get there. And some of the special effects are horrible. A scene in the desert that’s supposed to be set at sunrise is simply shot at noon and darkened after shooting, and it looks very unnatural. The shadows are all wrong.

The final act makes it up again as we return to the city of the dead. It’s time to blow up some mummies and ogle ancient treasures. All in all, The Mummy is still one of the finer adventure blockbusters of the 1990s. It’s from that same period as Independence Day and Godzilla when action movies were more straightforward, and more silly instead of offensively dumb. Four years later, Pirates of the Caribbean would offer a very similar story in terms of atmosphere and balance between adventure and comedy. That one would be much more successful, but The Mummy could be seen as a fine precursor to the Pirates films.

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