The new Mummy movie, out this weekend, does not sound, uh, particularly great. If you have your heart set on seeing a mummy movie, and assuming you don’t want to go all the way back to the black-and-white movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s, I have a recommendation: Why not watch the 1999 movie instead?
There is no reason not to. This version, starring Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and directed by Stephen Sommers, is a delightful romp of a movie. While it’s not perfect, it has a sense of fun that a) really fits as a summer movie b) is clearly missing from the new version out today.
One of the smartest things 1999's Mummy did was adapting the original 1932 Universal movie and set itself in the 1920s. It’s like a lesser Indiana Jones in the sense that it recognized everything that was awesome about the movies from an older era, and used them to great effect. So it’s fun, but it also keeps the core bits of a monster movie intact.
The plot is not exactly shocking: A British librarian named Evy (Rachel Weisz) is shown a map to a mythical city of the dead by her wastrel, treasure-seeking brother (John Hannah). (They are technically half-British, half-Egyptian. But they embody so many British stereotypes that they may as well be giant, tea-sipping umbrellas wearing bowler hats.) It turns out her brother stole the map from an American named Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), who reluctantly agrees to take them back to the city that he once saw. Along the way they fight to beat an American team led by the same guide that double-crossed Rick the first time he visited the city, as well as face a secret society devoted to keeping people away from the Mummy—who, if awakened, will end the world. Then they awaken the Mummy. The rest of the film is them figuring out how to undo that mistake.
Are there historical inaccuracies? Oh, yes. Are there problems with some characterizations? Sure. Is it weird that a cursed Egyptian mummy would have all the powers of the 10 plagues from the Bible? Absolutely. Is it even weirder that they constantly mention these 10 plagues while omitting the plague that specifically killed off everyone’s first-born child? Even more yes.
But all of that just adds to the charm of The Mummy. I mean, where else are you going to find a movie where a fearsome monster screams at a cat?
The Mummy trades in stereotypes, but the one I appreciate most in a movie set in Egypt is that one of the recurring jokes in this movie are jokes about Americans—big, dumb Americans wielding guns and whooping and hollering. Evy and her brother make a great many derogatory comments about Americans and then say “No offense” to Rick.
Then there’s that secret society. At one point Evy gets on her high horse over the fact that they are willing to kill innocent people looking for the mummy’s location:
Dr. Bey: We are part of an ancient secret society. For over three thousand years we have guarded the City of the Dead. We are sworn at manhood to do any and all in our power to stop the High Priest Imhotep from being reborn into this world.
Ardeth Bay: Now, because of you, we have failed.
Evy: And you think this justifies the killing of innocent people?
Dr. Bey: To stop this creature? Let me think...
Ardeth Bay, Dr. Bey (together): YES!
It’s so nice to see the pragmatic option acknowledged. And to see this group presented as still on the side of good. Pretty much everyone who isn’t the Mummy or the serial backstabber has good and bad qualities, which is shockingly nuanced for a movie like this.
Evy and her brother are legitimately great characters. Evy is a bookworm who dreams of being accepted by the Bembridge scholars, who reject her due to not enough field experience. And yet, she acquits herself pretty well when faced with accidentally bringing a mummy to life.
The character I live for, however, is Jonathan Carnahan, Evy’s brother. He is greedy and a drunk, but he’s also an expert just under Evy’s level. There is a moment where he runs off to “start the car,” so he doesn’t have to wait around for the Mummy’s brainwashed hoard to find them. But as he runs out, he sees the chanting hoard. He manages to blend in before sneaking off to actually start the car before everyone runs out.
It’s a masterful scene of suspense and humor, while also showing us that there are layers to Jonathan’s studied avarice and mild cowardice.
The whole movie is like that. At its core, it’s a silly action movie. But it’s layered with all these small moments of smart humor and characters with depth. I unironically love this movie. Many a childhood sleepover was dedicated to watching this movie, and it still holds up. Make your weekend better by choosing the 1999 Mummy over the one in theaters.