The Mummy

Several people commented during our Avatar contest that they would like to see us  review The Mummy (1999). I happen to have a unique perspective on this movie, as it has somehow wormed its way into an odd place in my life. I first saw it in college, and while I didn’t hate it, I felt no interest in sitting through it ever again. Steven Sommers’ obsession with mindless spectacle and pointless deaths was enough to ruffle even my then-adolescent feathers.  I put The Mummy from my mind, and didn’t even bother to check out the over-hyped sequel in the summer of 2001.

Seven years later, I got married, and I learned that The Mummy was one of my wife’s all-time favorite movies. Since it had been so long, and out of affection for her, I gladly endured one more screening. The problem is, one was not enough for her. For the last two years of my life, every time there’s laundry to fold or iron, The Mummy goes in the VCR. I usually try to busy myself in some other room, balancing the checkbook or something, whenever she watches The Mummy. Despite this, I can still hear it, and have learned all the screams of the movie by heart.

So, what’s in The Mummy? We start around 1200 B.C. when Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), high priest of Pharaoh Sethi I, and Ank Su Namun, the Paraoh’s concubine (Patricia Velasquez, above) conspire to murder Sethi. They take turns hacking him with swords, causing him to go “Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!” Ank Su Namun then kills herself to avoid punishment for the murder. Imhotep later tries to resurrect her, but Sethi’s guards stop him. He is sentenced to be mummified alive for his crimes. (Just for the record, that’s not nearly as bad as it sounds. In real life, you’d be dead halfway through step one.) Some priests cut off his tongue, resulting in a scream that is really more of gasp. Imhotep is then buried alive, and placed under a curse that says, should he be resurrected, he would return as a pestilence to destroy the earth.

Before Scott Evil can jump up and say “Why don’t you just kill him and be done with it?” we are transported to the 1920s. We meet Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), a British librarian and Egyptologist, who emits an “Eeeek!” when her brother, Jonathon (John Hannah), makes a mummy pop out of a sarcophagus, startling her. Jonathon has found an artifact that intrigues Evie, and she begins assembling a team to travel deep into Egypt to find the lost city of Hamunaptra. They are joined by Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), an adventurer from the States, and four treasure hunters, along with many other nameless pieces of monster fodder, destined to emit screams.

On the journey, their ship is attacked by fighters who protect Imhotep’s tomb called the Medjai. O’Connell sets one on fire, who jumps off the boat, screaming “Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash) Once they arrive at Hamunaptra, three Arabic-speaking guides are melted by acid in a booby trap,

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

A warden has a golden beetle come to life, burrow into his foot, then up his body and into his brain, causing him to go mad and run screaming down a corridor into a wall

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

And finally, Evie reads from the Book of the Dead, bringing Imhotep back to life. “Noo! You must not read from the book!” As soon as she does, a storm of locust comes up, forcing the adventurers inside the ancient temple that is now stalked by Imhotep. One by one, all the extras are killed either by Imhotep, the beetles, or booby traps, resulting in screams to numerous to transcribe.

They return to Cairo but the Mummy follows them. Four treasure hunters are under a special curse for opening Imhotep’s organ chest, and he kills each of them before moving on to the rest of the world. While the first one dies screaming “No! Please, please, please …” the rest of them go out with more of an “Aaaeeeiiieck*” as Imhotep drains them of their life. Each time he does so, he partially regenerates, until he looks like a living man. Which raises some questions: what would he have done if fewer than four had opened the chest? If no one had opened the chest, but Evie had read from the book, would he have just destroyed the world as a walking corpse? For that matter, since he plans on destroying the world anyway, why bother with these guys?

The Mummy; half-way through his curse victims, so ... 50% regenerated?

The answer is, you have to think like Steven Sommers. For Sommers, making sense is nothing; spectacle is everything. Nothing goes into the “plot” of this movie unless it will lead to either a fight scene or a horrific, screaming death (although the deaths involve an implausible omission of red liquid to keep that all-important PG-13 rating). The curse on Imhotep’s organ chest is nothing more than an aside, crammed into the movie to give Sommers an excuse to kill four more guys.

Frankly, the rest of the movie is pretty much the same thing. More screams, people dying by the hundred, and inane scripture quotations with no meaning. Beth eventually showed me the sequel, and I actually liked it a little better, though I think it was mostly because I had lower expectations. If you’re interested in Sommer’s work, or in Universal Studios monsters, your time would be better spent checking out Van Helsing (2004). It has all the same stupidities as The Mummy, but at least has cooler characters, awesome action scenes, and some really wicked gadgets.

To summarize my impression of The Mummy:

Sitting through it once: “Eh.” (In other words, )

Being subjected to it over and over:

“Aaaggh!” “Eeee!”  “Aaaaa!”

“Hoo, hoo, hoo-aaaaah!” (splash)

Aaagh!

Aaagh!

Owwie!

Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! Smack

“No! Please, please, please …”

“Aaaeeeiiieck*”

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Avatar (Take-Two)

Avatar is not a movie.  It is an experience.  It is a thoroughly engrossing cinematic wonder, mighty and powerful to behold as it grips you with images and sights too incredible to believe, while simultaneously touching you with a tender story that is, at its most basic level, a simple tale of star-crossed love–the kind of tale which has been told for generations upon generations and is as old as time itself.  Avatar is a technological marvel, while thoroughly obliterating the barrier between technology and reality.  Avatar is a film unlike any I have ever seen.

Perhaps it’s the adrenaline talking here, as I left the theatre not more than a half hour ago, and am still trying to process just what it was that I saw.  Perhaps it’s my admiration for James Cameron.  Perhaps it’s my inner sci-fi fanboy being set loose once again–the same force that caused me to go see The Phantom Menace more than ten times in the theatre, just because it was Star Wars.  Or perhaps, perhaps, Avatar really is that good.

Before discussing the storyline, I have to first deal with the planet itself.  All the action of Avatar takes place on Pandora, a world far from here that is a mixture of ecologies unlike anything seen in film or art.  To call it a jungle would be like saying the Mona Lisa is just some painting.  Pandora is as rich and full of life as any locale here on earth, and is inhabited by animals, trees, and human-like beings so realistic there is literally nothing to distinguish them from any of the visual elements of the movie that actually are real.  This is computer-generated imagery the likes of which has not been seen.  Ever. If Weta Digital’s creation of a thoroughly realistic Gollum was a foot in the door, showing us what was possible with computer graphics, the world and creatures of Pandora take that door and blow it to kingdom come.

Jake Sully and Col. Miles Quatrich examine the village the Na'Vi call home.

After this, anything is possible.

To be clear:  every frame, every single frame, of what I saw onscreen last night displayed more life, depth, and richness than what I thought was possible in any given movie as a whole.  I don’t know how James Cameron thought of this world, but he serves up vistas so grand and stunning, supported by creatures so fair and delicate (the floating “seeds” that come down from one special tree are exquisite wisps of life that look so real you will try to reach out and touch them), that it feels as if you aren’t watching a movie, but living right alongside the Na’Vi as they explore the planet of Pandora.

If one could level any criticisms at Avatar, it would be for the fairly lightweight story:  humans = bad, native peoples = good.  Humans want a precious mineral that resides underneath the Na’Vi’s main village, they must either convince them to leave or force them to leave.  Since the humans are mostly a military bunch, headed by a greedy corporate honcho and a trigger-happy Marine commander, and since this is also a James Cameron movie, it’s a foregone conclusion from the get-go that the two forces will end up battling each other rather than just talking their way out of the mess.  But rather than say the story is simplistic, I would describe it as simply uncomplicated.  No labyrinthine plotlines or story mechanisms are required here:  Cameron simply asks us to watch as he lets his world unfold before our eyes, to see marine Jake Sully fall in love with Neytiri, the Na’Vi who helps Sully’s avatar learn the ways of her people.

Sully's avatar experiences the floating seeds of Pandora.

Some movies are fun to see in a theatre because of the loud volume, big screen, and excitement of the crowd.  Avatar is a film that must be experienced in a theatre, especially one that has a 3D projector.  Cameron uses the third dimension to eliminate any last vestige of reserve that might exist in the viewer’s mind that this world is imaginary.  There are no cheap gimmicks here, or things flying at the viewer just for the sake of doing it in 3D.  No, the 3D element renders the movie completely, utterly immersive.  A believable depth of field surrounds the viewer, and everything from smoke and dust particles to missiles exploding and trees collapsing takes place in all three dimensions.  The best special effects, like the best seasoning on a meal, are the ones that are so good the viewer doesn’t even notice them or single them out as effects.  Cameron’s use of 3D is so elemental to Avatar that you forget it’s there, and become completely enveloped in the experience of it all.

Children enjoy fairy tales partly because they like to entertain the possibility that such fantastical worlds of dragons, fairy godmothers, and magical wizards could really exist.  Avatar is a fairy tale come to life, and James Cameron invites his viewers to return to their childhood imaginations and believe, for two and a half hours, that the world of Pandora really exists.  And when I stepped out of the theatre, I was almost convinced it was actually real.

Rating:

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