I love 1999’s The Mummy, but that wasn’t always the case. While I now consider it a delightfully campy, appropriately spooky, and surprisingly empowering movie, I used to be so terrified of it that I had trouble looking at the posters. You know the ones, with the big scary sand-mummy sandstorm? I dunno, I was nine and they freaked me the fuck out. Add onto that the gruesome murders in the movie’s prologue and I was officially Not Into It.
Eventually I made it through the movie (applying a pillow as a shield between me and the flesh-eating scarabs as necessary) and realized that it was actually a hell of a fun ride.
The Mummy follows Evie Carnahan and Rick O’Connell as they head into the Egyptian desert in search of the mystical ancient city of Hamunaptra. They’re in search of an ancient and enormous treasure, but when they get there, they accidentally wake the spirit of an ancient evil. The restless spirit of a traitorous high priest, who was gruesomely executed after he and his lover murdered the pharaoh and attempted to perform some serious dark magics, is accidentally revived when Evie reads aloud from the Book of the Dead. The mummy Imhotep wreaks havoc on Egypt as he works to complete his resurrection and gather what he needs to bring his lady love Anck Su Namun back from the dead as well. It’s up to Evie, Rick, and their ragtag band of teammates to save the day and send Imhotep back to the underworld.
One of the most surprising things about this movie is that while Imhotep may be the titular character, the protagonist is definitely Evie. A movie set in the 1920s and it still managed to have a female protagonist! She’s the first person we’re introduced to in the modern (well, modern-er than Imhotep’s era) day, and it’s her character that drives the story arc. She’s not the most street-savvy, but she learns quickly when the occasion calls for it; she’s incredibly well-educated, and justly proud of it, even when she doesn’t get the credit she deserves for it. She runs up against period-era sexism time and again but never takes it to heart. Also, she unwittingly turns the gruff scalawag O’Connell into a blushing, stammering nerd with a crush, and it’s adorable. She’s the one to cause the whole mummy problem in the first place because she’s the one who reads the spell out of the Book of the Dead, but she’s also the one who, despite being captured and on the verge of death at the end of the movie, puzzles out the spell to undo it. (And if that isn’t enough to convince you that she’s awesome, we have a whole post about her here reaffirming it.)
Personally, I love Evie as a protagonist because her primary skill set is her knowledge; her defining feature is her love of books. It’s not often that you see an action movie that has a bookish, non-combat-trained woman as the hero—especially not one where those qualities are celebrated by the narrative—and it meant, and still means, a lot to me.
Unsurprisingly for Hollywood, of course, most of the main cast are white, with the notable exception of Oded Fehr’s Ardeth Bay, and Patricia Velasquez’s Anck Su Namun. Evie tells Rick that her mother was native Egyptian, but Rachel Weisz isn’t mixed race at all. Arnold Vosloo, who plays Imhotep, is a white South African, and despite his vaguely “ethnic” appearance and accent in the movie, the guy who plays Beni is white too. Most of the people of color are one-off characters or total cannon fodder. This is an endemic problem for big-budget movies set in Egypt. I don’t say this to give it a pass, but it’s also not exactly shocking.
The CGI of the movie was absolutely top of the line when it premiered but it does come off as a little dated now. It’s not so much that it throws you out of the movie or anything; it just has that little bit of an edge of fakeyness. The horror effects are still definitely effective (ha) despite this, though, from the skin-crawling ick of the flesh-eating scarabs to the more visceral body horror of yanking out eyeballs and tongues and being mummified alive. Fair warning—if any of those things aren’t your speed, this may not be the movie for you.
While I’m still never going to be a horror person, The Mummy is less a horror movie and more an action/adventure flick, albeit with some pretty strong horror elements. They’re not that much scarier than some of the shit in an Indiana Jones movie, though, so if you can handle face-melted Nazis, you’ll probably be okay. Despite my childhood misgivings, I’ve really come to love this movie and all its cheesy, wonderful derring-do, and it’s a pleasure to revisit it from time to time.