Misery and “The Mummy”

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The memories of my childhood are few and far between. Someday a therapist will sort all that out, but I really don’t mind. I’m quite all right with the creature I’ve turned into. I have my passions and delights. I have decency. I have good hair. I don’t really have many regrets. And somehow life has treated with absurd kindness. It’s allowed me to travel from one continent to the next, to cope with incurable neurological disorders, to raise morale in times of alarm, to live well in paltry surroundings, and to make friends wherever I go. I really have no complaints. But I make mention of this vanished childhood because there are a few memories that stay in my mind with remarkable clarity.

When I was nine years old, I was already gripped by Egyptological fervor. I was routinely visiting a shop in Des Moines called Egyptian Treasures and holding lengthy conversations with the proprietor about Cairo, archaeology, international travel, and hieroglyphs. He was from Cairo and had settled in Des Moines for reasons I never knew. Don’t think I ever asked, actually. So in 1999 when The Mummy starring the inimitable Brandon Fraser and the incomparable Rachel Weisz came to theaters, I was very intrigued.

I didn’t get to go. And I don’t really know why. I assume it’s because I wasn’t even ten and it was rated PG-13. Other children my age didn’t have such restrictions and so on a walk through town with my classmates to the community center, I was delighted to find somebody who had seen it. We decided to exchange movie synopsis, so I regaled him with an intricate and well told recap of The Mummy’s Hand from 1940. I had recently convinced my dad to purchase me a VHS copy from Suncoast. Remember those?

His summary was lame in comparison, but he made mention of flesh eating scarab beetles, which I already knew weren’t real, but the scenes he described were exciting. I was so excited later to finally own a copy. I loved every second of it. That’s how you do a movie. It’s a delight to this day.

Throughout my life, I have watched this movie a hundred times a hundred. It was the first DVD I ever bought, and to carry on the tradition, it became the very first Blu-Ray disk that I ever bought. I credit it with keeping my love for ancient Egypt alive through the trials and tribulations of my life. And whenever her siren song calls, I pop an inordinate amount of popcorn and return to Cairo and the desert and then to the cursed city of Hamunaptra.

Since 1999, I have gone to Egypt twice, researched the history of this civilization with the dedication of a scholar, and learned to read a very limited bit of the hieroglyphs that festooned the walls and scrolls and coffins. To this day, my sister and I cannot go to a museum without saying, “Ya-too-beh,” at mummies. It’s always slightly disappointing when they don’t come to life, but what can you really expect?

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When the news arrived that Universal was rebooting The Mummy, I was of course ecstatic. Since the original Universal monster movie, these films have been nonsensical fun. An alarming number of desiccated corpses have come to life to curse careless archaeologists and their wisecracking cowardly sidekick. The plot is a standardized formula by now. It’s hard to go wrong. All you have to do is have a missing treasure, a dashing Egyptologist, a dashing love interest, an idiot companion, a curse, and a reincarnated evil mummy. This isn’t rocket science. So I expected the same thing from this new film.

Then it all turned to SHIT.

I heard that Tom Cruise was the lead, and I’d honestly be surprised if you didn’t hear my moan as it crossed time zones and filtered off into deep space. I knew that it wouldn’t be Brendan Fraser again. That was too much to hope for, but of all the people in Hollywood…Tom Cruise? PLEASE. I knew it was going to be a disaster then.  Then the trailer came out and this was confirmed.

Could you even get through that? I couldn’t just now.

So the fateful opening night came, and Jessica and I made our way to the theatre. I bought the biggest box of popcorn I could possibly get so that I could shove fistfuls of it into my mouth instead of screaming at the screen. I also brought a trusty notebook so that I could take notes of every inaccuracy and plot hole I could find. I fully anticipated being kicked out of the local cinema.

The lights went down. The shit show started.

To begin, as in all mummy movies, we begin with a backstory. I rolled my eyes from the very beginning. More palace intrigue of course. Princess Ahmanet is in line for the throne once her old man passes, but then a boy baby is born to a concubine and her dreams are shattered. Immediately I had to take issue with this. There were women pharaohs, of course, and there is considerable evidence that the power of Egypt passed through the royal women, not men. Still, it was customary for men to rule. It is much more likely that Princess Ahmanet would have become the co-regent for this baby until he was old enough to assume the throne.

This is very similar to what happened to the infamous Queen Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Instead Princess Ahmanet decides to slaughter her entire family aided, for some reason that is never explained, by a monstrous alliance with Set. There was no real reason for this. She could have killed everybody without an alliance with the god. Set was misrepresented here. He is truly the god of chaos and deserts and foreigners amongst other things. In The Mummy he is for some reason the god of death. Not the same thing at all.

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Of course, Princess Ahmanet is found out and condemned to die. Patricide is nothing new in ancient Egypt. There is an infamous story about Ramses III who was murdered by his son, Prince Pentawere, so that he could become pharaoh himself. His plot was found out, but he had already killed his pops, so he was condemned to wander the desert and die without the pleasure of knowing he’d be welcomed into the afterlife with an intact mummified body. Prince Pentawere is quite likely the Screaming Mummy seen below.

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Even though he was a killer, he was still a royal and was buried in the Royal Cache that was found in 1881 and full of missing royal mummies. Prince Pentawere was not embalmed, and there is evidence that he hung himself. He was wrapped in impure goat skins and shoved in a box. The nobles cared enough about this villain to save him centuries later.

This is different entirely from what happened to Princess Ahmanet. In the film she was mummified alive and then buried in a tomb in Syria. None of this makes any historical sense. Of course to be buried outside of Egypt would be a horror for a true Egyptian, but such a thing has no basis in reality. It’s a movie, after all, so if that was the worst that would happen, I would excuse it. BUT THEN I SAW HER SARCOPHAGUS.

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The narrator makes frequent mention that she was from the New Kingdom, which depending on the scene was either there or five thousand years ago. *insert eye roll* Three is correct. I can forgive a lot, but then I saw the hieroglyphs that covered her coffin. Inside the cartouche, that royal marker that displays the pharaoh’s name clearly said Unis. I cackled. He was pharaoh during the fifth dynasty which was in the Old Kingdom which was over a thousand years before this fictional nonsense was supposed to take place.

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Then all of a sudden we were in the modern world and Tom Cruise shows up and makes me hate him instantly. He is working for the military but is actively spending his time treasure hunting and selling his loot on the black market. Nothing infuriates me more. The illegal antiquities trade is the bane of honest scholars and archaeologists. Each artifact in situ is a valuable resource to better understand the lives of ancient Egyptians. So when statues and shards and tomb engravings are hacked out and sold, irretrievable information is lost for eternity. Because of the greed of private collectors, this trade continues to flourish and is one of the major revenue sources for terrorists. I can go on about this for a year, but I won’t. Let it be known then that I abhorred Tom Cruise’s character for the rest of the film and I deplored his friend. They tried to have the cowardly sidekick, but Universal just created an asshole. He ordered an airstrike on a village occupied by terrorists.

Now reader, let me tell you something, I took an advanced course about the politics of terrorism. I understand more than I ever dreamed of understanding. This kind of behavior is what allows this nefarious system to flourish. The portrayal of two thieves having the authority to justifiably slaughter legions of people — evil or not — is not the kind of message we need to be sending out into the world. I wrote a lengthy policy paper for my final in that class and did tremendous amounts of research on perception’s role in developing extremism. Air strikes are inconceivably bad. I was disgusted. DISGUSTED. Thankfully this part of the film didn’t go on forever.

It was just horrifically bad.

Then of course they found the mummy’s tomb and began engaging in obscenely poor archaeological practices. I bit my tongue. My tongue bled.

For whatever reason, Tom Cruise and his dumb friend scurry down deep into the bowels of the earth with an archaeologist who is conveniently trained in the ancient Egyptian language. It’s not an impossible thing, reader. I can make out cartouches and some basic religious formulae in Middle Egyptian, but archaeologists are highly specialized creatures. They are scholars of different fields. It doesn’t make sense for an Egyptologist to be in Syria hoofing it with the military. So when she (inevitably blonde and slim and gorgeous — don’t get me started) easily translated the sarcophagus’s many curses, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

This was, of course, a tremendous find, so she orders it to be taken out with them. Things now become inconceivably dumber. The sarcophagus — which mind you, assumedly contains a brittle desiccated corpse — is attached to a helicopter and flown through the desert to the air base. It swings wildly as a sand storm chases them and there is absolutely no suspense or horror.

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We’re just wondering why Tom Cruise is possessed by something, why the camel spiders conveniently disappeared, and why the other equally important artifacts in the tomb are abandoned. Even Jessica, who has heard all of my many lectures (except for the one that got me nearly kicked out of LACMA) wondered about the idiotic transportation of Princess Ahmanet. I was proud.

Now the body and this troop of assholes loaded on a plane and more stupidity begins. This sand storm is close to engulfing them and yet somehow they manage to strap the sarcophagus securely in the airplane. Why do they care now? The contents are already ruined. While they fly, Tom Cruise ogles the exposed flesh of the woman’s stomach as she reaches for something to reinforce his heterosexuality. *insert eye roll* Then he shoots and kills his best friend who was bit by a spider maybe but who knows because nothing made sense in this waste of a film.

What happens next is idiotic and I don’t understand. The plane crashes in England. Why is an American military plane landing in England? Why would the plane go to England from Syria? I’ve flown from Doha to Manchester…that’s a long flight. It’s stupidity, reader. The only survivors are Tom Cruise and that woman obviously.

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Of course the mummy is awake now and hell bent on something that we don’t really ever find out. The leads dramatically whisper that she is going to make the world in her image…but that doesn’t mean anything to the viewer. So the mummy is on the loose and Tom Cruise is seeing shit that isn’t there and all this time I’m waiting for something wonderful to happen, some moment that makes this experience worth it. I’m still waiting.

It goes on and on, reader, and it never gets any better.

Then, reader, something delightful truly did happen. It was the best moment in the movie. There was an easter egg calling back to the delightful Mummy movies I fell in love with. In one of the dozen fight scenes, the Book of the Dead from that movie was used as a weapon and then dropped on the floor. It lasted but a second, but that moment was glorious. I had such hope.

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The movie almost gets interesting when we meet Dr. Jekyll played quite well by Russell Crowe. Unfortunately his character isn’t fully fleshed out yet and his medication schedule doesn’t seem to be understood by anybody or himself. The storytelling in this movie is just so bad. It has everything that should be good and yet it fails in every way. It misses every mark.

The mummy goes on a rampage, of course, bunches of people die, all the glass in London literally explodes, more people die, the mummy comes after Tom Cruise’s true love which is now that archaeologist, Tom Cruise saves the day, Tom Cruise rides off into the desert. I was finally free to go.

It was awful.

I wanted so much for it not to be, but The Mummy is the failed end result of trying to please everybody. There is much too much happening and none of it seems well thought out. Jessica summarized it best as we waited for the very final credit to roll by, “This many people to fuck up a movie?” Indeed. All The Mummy needed was editing. This could have been fun. This should have been great. Let’s break it down.

Studios want to please audiences so they can turn a profit. That’s essentially all Hollywood is. So let’s do that intelligently. They attempted to reach every audience, but that’s nigh on impossible, so let’s EDIT.

Everybody loves a mummy. That’s universal. (See what I did there?) Go to absolutely any museum with a mummy in it and you will find a crowd ogling its ancient flesh. People are instinctively thrilled at a corpse’s survival. So let’s have a mummy and let’s make her a woman. Good start. Fresh and different and new.

Excellent, so now what is the issue at hand? It’s inevitably the end of the world so we’ll do that. We are living in times of insecurity, so we shouldn’t struggle with this. Everybody hates terrorists, so let’s make them the bad guys, not just some fringe character that we annihilate for reasons that do nothing to propel the plot. Have the mummy ally with them. Their defeat in the inevitable happy ending would be much more pleasing.

Let’s even keep Tom Cruise because he is absurdly popular outside of the United States. Here we think of him as a kooky, short Scientologist who doth protest too much and jumps on couches.

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There were dim flickers, reader, of humor in his delivery, so let’s amp up some comedy. This is what made The Mummy franchise of the 90s and early 00s such a romp.

Let’s not kill off his buddy in the first twenty minutes and keep him around to be the actual hero at the end. Everybody loves rooting for the rookie. Let’s keep the archaeologist but make her a native Egyptian. I know several female Egyptologists and they are always a pleasure to chat with. So let’s put an Egyptian actress up there and broaden the role of women in the Muslim world instead of just glorifying airstrikes and Islamophobia.

I don’t even mind the drastic scene change to the foggy English countryside, and it was rather impressive to see all of that exploding glass so let’s keep it. But let’s have this story be cohesive. Reader, I didn’t even mention a tedious subplot about the Crusaders. I won’t start now. Just know that it did nothing and didn’t help unkink the complicated plot that I am trying to still grapple with.

Let’s make this fun. Let’s end the curse, let’s run through Cairo, let’s arrest the terrorists, let’s destroy the mummy, let’s have a laugh, and let’s have a delightful two-hour film. That would be so much better than the burden The Mummy was to get through. Not a single character gained the audience’s sympathy, no plot point intrigued us, the resolution was expected and dull. Let’s let this disaster be a lesson on what not to do going forward.

Don’t see The Mummy. I stand by my initial review that I posted to Facebook and Twitter:

The Mummy was significantly worse than I feared. It was a blatant glorification of misogyny, Islamophobia, poor archaeological processes, and traditional gender roles. Horrible. Avoid. #brendanfraserwouldNEVER

ALSO: there wasn’t a single camel in this movie, so that makes it SHIT by itself.

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