If you looked up the 1999 film, The Mummy, on Metacritic, you may be surprised to learn it currently holds at 48/100. Respectable outlets, such as The Washington Post, Variety and TIME slammed the movie, while most critics gave the movie so-so reviews. But despite this, the movie has garnered a type of legacy and is, arguably, one of the best blockbuster movies of the 90s. In fact, when it comes to action-adventure films, I’d argue The Mummy holds a candle to some of the best of the genre.
The Mummy is a quasi-remake of the 1932 film of the same name starring the great Borris Karloff. Unlike that film, the 1999 version finds inspiration from the likes of Indiana Jones and Romancing the Stone. Brendan Fraser stars as Rick O’Connell, an American soldier serving in the French Foreign Legion turned treasure hunter and adventurer. Despite being a film of the 90s, O’Connell feels a lot like the swashbuckling icons from the Golden Age of Hollywood. He embodies adventure, while also being knowledgeable about the history and the time. This is a stark contrast to the Tom Cruise character in the 2017 reboot of The Mummy which, for the record, is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. In it, Cruise’s character, Nick Morton, a US soldier, moonlights as a treasure hunter who has no idea what a sarcophagus is. O’Connell is believable because he has a passable knowledge of the treasure and thus, the history, but more importantly, understands it and even fears it.
But while he may know what the Book of the Dead is, it’s Rachel Weiz’s Evie Carnahan who has the real smarts in the movie. Evie is probably the most badass librarian in film, who also happens to be an Egyptologist. She’s proud of her profession and won’t let others belittle her for it. She has great fascination and appreciation for Ancient Egyptian history, as she herself is half Egyptian. While she’s no Princess Leia of Star Wars picking up blasters, she’s badass in a different way. As the men are using violence to achieve an end, physical action has no effect on the undead. It’s the knowledge that ultimately saves the day and Evie is the one who has said knowledge.
Evie gets dragged into greater adventure when her brother, Jonathan, comes into possession of a key thanks to his less-than-honourable ways. Before long, the trio has come together and are en route to the fabled (and entirely fictional) city of Hamumaptra, the resting place of Pharaohs and, more importantly to O’Connell and his American rivals, their wealth.
What makes The Mummy so great, especially looking back at it in 2020, is how well it juggles multiple genres. While most blockbusters have their action sprinkled with humour to drive the story going, The Mummy seemed to successfully sprinkle horror elements, romance, adventure, action, disaster, and intrigue to keep the story going. There was an investigation to figure out where Imhotep, the titular mummy, is going to be next and what his plan ultimately is. His rampage to become whole again, as well as the traps set around his resting place, are enough to spook anyone. The bug under Gad Hassan’s skin which sent him into madness is creepy, as is the acid that melted the digger’s faces and, most of all, Imhotep’s “juicy” corpse being unearthed. Still traumatizing.
And the juicy corpse is a great segway, while we’re at it, for how much practical effects are in the movie, especially in terms of the sets. Sure, there is plenty of CGI and some of it has definitely aged. But even as a movie from 1999, the CGI is for the most part at least manageable. But the sets, on the other hand, wow. The places the diggers go to visit all feel like real places. Filmed in Morocco and the Sahara due to political issues in Egypt, the shoot wasn’t exactly easy. Filming in such hostile environments saw sandstorms occur almost daily and crew members being stung or bitten by snakes, scorpions and spiders. Dehydration was a serious problem. Heck, Frasier himself almost died during the hanging scene due to a lack of oxygen. But all of that was in service of bringing the viewer to a specific time and place (barring the hanging that is). You’re in the desert with these people, and the sets feel like they’ve been lost there for thousands of years.
The Mummy captures the sense of wonder and adventure in a way that only Indiana Jones or the Uncharted video game franchise has managed to do so. Treasure hunting movies tend to, well, suck by default as they all try to replicate stuff that someone else does. But ironically, 1999’s The Mummy, a remake, finds a way to feel fresh, new and capturing a sense of wonder and magic. It treats the world seriously but doesn’t take itself too seriously. It knows how to have fun, be part of the adventure. Despite the horrors of the tomb and the subsequent manhunt for the undead priest Imhotep, the film isn’t grim or serious. It’s fun!
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