The Mummy knew what it was - and that's its charm
A love letter to The Mummy
It is the year of our lord 2022, and Hot Topic has just announced a new merchandise line inspired by The Mummy, a movie that would now be legal to drink if it were a young person instead of being one of the silliest adventure movies to come out of the '90s. Now yes, I recognize that most people who were not children at the time of The Mummy's release do not have the same relationship with the film as those who were. But, as a person who was a child when The Mummy came out, I am as thrilled as anyone about The Mummy-aissance.
Sure, now's the age of nostalgia, and it can be annoying to constantly be reliving only old stories, but due to my strange media upbringing (I wasn't allowed to watch TV), this is one of the few returns to a childhood classic that actually resonates with me.
Before learning what genre was (let alone studying it), I loved it. And one of my all-time favorite genres was the adventure movie. I loved the tone and the conventions, how you could tell what was going to happen next and still be surprised by it. Of course, growing up in the '90s, watching action movies mostly meant watching adventure parodies, which included cartoons, The Mummy, The Princess Bride, and National Treasure.
Now, we're not here to talk about those other beloved movies-- we're here to talk about Stephen Sommers' kind-of ripoff of Indiana Jones, kind-of remake of 1932 classic The Mummy-- a remake that (by the way) had almost nothing to do at all with the original movie, losing most of the original plot, characters, and even tone of the film, which was originally a straightforward horror movie. No, The Mummy (1999) was not a horror movie (though those scarabs did scare the bejeezus out of me as a kid). Instead, it was an adventure-explorer-romance movie all about finding the hidden treasure before the other guys, using only your wits and guts. Pretty much exactly what a kid like me would like.
Unlike children, the critics didn't seem to like the movie much, though there's a famous line from Ebert's review of the movie that reads, "There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased." And that's still how the movie reads to me—as something that creates unreasonable pleasure. It's hard to watch this movie without a smile, even now. Looking back at the film, there's a lot (and I mean a lot) of racism in The Mummy, not to mention the very obvious orientalism and imperialism that seeps out of most movies about excavation in Egypt. But beyond that, the movie has a charm to it. A lightness that is pretty rare in movies now, as well as a love for genre, that I think people think exists now, but doesn't really.
When reading old interviews about this movie I came across a quote from Rachel Weisz in an interview with the Birmingham Post where Weisz mentioned that she didn't like horror, but called their new version of The Mummy "a comic book world." Now we've got plenty of the comic book world about in our movies today, but The Mummy is an altogether different sort of comic book. It's one that isn't ashamed of what it is. It leans into the broadness that you can only get away with in an action movie and doesn't go out of its way to explain things that don't really need to be explained beyond labelling it "ancient Egyptian." We get just enough background so that we can care about the characters and have a feel for the world and nothing more.
Instead of focusing on the intricacies of worldbuilding (and universe building that we often see now) and diving into the dark backstories of the characters, the focus of the movie is very much on the action, the jokes, and the emotion of it all, which allows the movie to move with a sort of breathlessness. There's a bit of a wink and a nudge here and there, but most of the movie feels earnest in its intent. It wants to be an action movie, a silly one at that-- not to be something that transcends it.
So many action movies nowadays either feel like they're completely self conscious or that they haven't been thought through at all (a recent exception would be The Lost City). The movies want to be taken seriously, and so they get weighed down with all of that extra guff that we really don't need. The Mummy wasn't afraid of the shallowness of the adventure movie, and so it was able to be a really good one.
Sure, overall the movie isn't a 'great' one, and maybe it was just that I was a kid and had terrible taste (as all kids do). But even watching The Mummy now and seeing how poorly parts of it has aged, it's hard to look at what Rachel Weisz is doing on her bit on the precarious ladder, or Brendan Fraser with his flippy hair shooting at shadows, John Hannah with his self deprecating jokes, and Oded Fehr with his smoulder, and not appreciate a movie that really loved what it was trying to do and leaned into it, not trying to be better or worse that the movies that it was emulating, just trying to get it right.
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