The Mummy (1999)
The Mummy Returns (2001)
“We’re scholars, not treasure hunters”
- The Curator
Are the recent Mummy movies films with archaeological themes or content? The words “archaeology” or “archaeologist” are not spoken in either one. Yet to many people, archaeology and Egypt are inseparable. Ancient Egypt is among the most fascinating, well-known, and romanticized civilizations of the ancient world. It would be more accurate to say that the Mummy movies have Egyptological themes and content – they refer to the field of Egyptology, which is more specific than archaeology. Egyptology is defined as: “The study of the culture and artifacts of the ancient Egyptian civilization” (American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Ed., 2000). Archaeologists work all over the world, but Egypt has always held a special place in the history of archaeology. Perhaps more than any other location, it has captured the imaginations of people all over the world for centuries.
Of course, Egyptology is not the central focus of these films. The character listed in The Mummy’s credits as “The Curator” (Erick Avari) states that he and his colleagues are scholars, not treasure hunters. That’s an accurate statement, but it’s hard to imagine a blockbuster adventure movie that revolves entirely around the pursuits of scholars, so The Mummy and The Mummy Returns include plenty of treasure hunting and supernatural villains. After all, it would be unthinkable to have a mummy movie without a curse.
The main characters in The Mummy are Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). Evelyn Carnarvon works at Cairo’s Museum of Antiquities in 1925. Though referred to as a librarian, Evelyn seems to have as much knowledge of Egyptian antiquities as the characters named the curator and the Egyptologist (Jonathan Hyde). She seeks to impress the curator and gain status by providing the museum with a great discovery. In pursuit of this, she teams up with American adventurer Rick O’Connell and an amusing variety of bumbling idiots. Evelyn is clearly the brains of the operation. Along the way, they encounter another team of explorers and the search for Hamunaptra (The City of the Dead) becomes a race for the prize. Success in this race depends largely on the characters’ knowledge of Egyptian mythology. Unfortunately, in the quest for the treasure, a great plague is unleashed – a resurrected mummy that cannot be destroyed with any mortal weapon. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t feature lots of guns, swords, knives, and dynamite, but in the end several key characters have to rely on their brains as well as their weaponry. Count how many times the heroes are saved by their timely ability to read Egyptian hieroglyphs!
The Mummy Returns follows the same characters and a similar plot, though enough of the details have changed to make it a sequel, rather than a re-make. It takes place in 1933 and, like most sequels, attempts to be bigger and better than the original. This means more action, more bad guys, more elaborate special effects sequences, etc. One particularly interesting addition is an eight year old boy whose knowledge of ancient Egypt rivals that of the adult characters. It’s nice to see such a smart kid portrayed. Regrettably, both films are rated PG-13 (for violent content), so many real-life eight year olds won’t be able see them. When they’re old enough maybe The Mummy Returns, and this character in particular, will inspire the next generation of Egyptologists the way Indiana Jones inspired some kids in the 1980’s.
Reviewing films like The Mummy and The Mummy Returns can be a difficult task, because they represent different things to different viewers with different expectations. It’s hard to decide what criteria to use when evaluating them. As pure action-adventure entertainment, the Mummy movies triumph. They’re fun. I can’t imagine not being entertained by them on some level. If we expect them to also be a balanced introduction to ancient Egyptian civilization, then they’re less successful. Realistically, I think the filmmakers intended to create exciting, profitable blockbusters loosely based on Egyptian locations and figures, not to mention the original 1932 version of The Mummy. Undoubtedly, they have achieved that goal.
In general, archaeologists and Hollywood filmmakers have very different motivations. Modern Egyptologists attempt to bring the realities of ancient Egypt to life for people of the present. Though it may not be the primary motivation of the Mummy movies, they do stunningly depict ancient Egypt being brought to life. So, there is occasionally some overlap between the goals of scholars and the goals of entertainers. Scholars can benefit by interacting with entertainers and vice versa. The Mummy and The Mummy Returns succeed as entertainment and if they spark a public interest in Egyptology, then that is a welcome bonus for archaeologists.
- Jay Fancher