Film: Raiders of the lost art

The Big Picture
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The Independent Culture



The first movie mummy I ever recall seeing twitch into life was not, alas, the vintage Boris Karloff or Christopher Lee, but Queen Rubbertiti in Carry On Screaming, and the chief purpose of her re-awakening was to pursue Kenneth Williams ("Frying tonight!") into a vat of molten gunk. So a movie called The Mummy has quite a lot to live up to: would it moan horribly and totter about like Frankenstein in dirty bandages? I certainly hoped so.

Living in the age of spiffy computer effects, of course, means that this latest incarnation will be unlike any we've seen before - imagine a half- decomposed skeleton, which keeps borrowing other men's vital organs to clip on his frame. This mummy has had a make-over. The reason for its new look is explained in a prologue: in ancient Thebes an evil high priest named Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) was caught diddling the Pharaoh's mistress and sentenced to "a fate worse than death".

Whereas nowadays that would mean being strapped down and forced to watch Saturday night television, in 1719 BC the deal was you got buried alive with a swarm of flesh-eating bugs for company: the curse of the undead, you see. Once he is roused from this tomb, however, "the sands will rise, the heavens will part" - and we get a ringside seat to the Apocalypse. Cool.

Cut to Egypt in 1923, where dashing adventurer Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) has run into a spot of local difficulty while seconded to the Foreign Legion. With a noose around his neck, he is saved from the drop by plucky English scholar Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her oafish brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), who need him as guide to the fabled city of Hamunaptra.

The trio saddle up and head out of Cairo, swiftly followed by a ragtag band of American scavengers who've got buried treasure in mind. As the race to the sarcophagus steps up you realise what the director, Stephen Sommers, has planned. Mythic destination, interwar setting, rival archaeologists, a hideous power waiting to be unleashed: he's simply keeping up with the Indiana Joneses.

Brendan Fraser offers a strapping Boy's Own athleticism in contrast to Harrison Ford's stubbled integrity, and he's not at all bad. It's turning out a pretty interesting year for Fraser so far. His lumbering gardener in Gods and Monsters was a terrific foil to Ian McKellen's sly old queen, while his turn as a throwback gallant sparked up the time-lapse comedy, Blast From the Past. Here he's given much less to do, but his charm and energy are still present and correct. What few scraps of comedy come his way, he nails very smartly: when yet another mysterious gust of wind segues into an unearthly moan, Fraser briefly furrows his brow and deadpans: "That happens a lot round here".

The film-makers want him to be a romantic hero too, of course, but he and Rachel Weisz have been afforded precious little scope to get frisky with each other - this despite her wearing no more than a nightie in the final frantic half-hour.

While there's a Spielbergian sense of scale in The Mummy, it lacks the dash and brio of a Raiders of the Lost Ark. It also runs into trouble in its choice of enemy. Where Raiders had fun frying the Nazis, here there's a crude mockery of Arabs. An example: a British toff is complaining about the camels - "Filthy buggers, they smell, they spit" - on which syllable the camera swings back to catch the Arab riding behind him hawk noisily. A variation on the gag is later repeated.

At the risk of sounding like Tom Paulin, is this not a disgrace? Perhaps it's just a period dab of colonial racism, but you do wonder. Stephen Sommers' screenplay isn't generally alive to the nuances of the British tongue - witness the moment that John Hannah cries: "I say, bloody good show, chaps!" - and the way most of the Arabs are characterised as grasping and perfidious should be enough to suggest an American-inspired bigotry.

What the film bludgeons us with, inevitably, are massed ranks of special effects. Some work better than others, like the swarming black carpet of scarabs that appear whenever there's a minor cast member due for a horrible death. And I admired the way the mummy's face coalesces out of a sandstorm, like a liquefied Mount Rushmore.

For the most part, however, it's simply a case of the undead stalking hapless humankind; whereas Dracula just needed a blood transfusion, the mummy's after a whole body transplant, and the various stages of its corporeal reconstitution are a prompt to sniggers, rather than scares.

The film ticks busily on, hardly daring to pause lest the shoddy plastering over of logic and sense should crumble to reveal the emptiness beneath.

Turning into the plot's home stretch, our hero is asked what he's going to do next - to which he replies: "Rescue a damsel in distress, kill the bad guys, save the world". The line will get a big laugh, but you may baulk at the knowingness of it: couldn't the film-makers, just for a moment, try to involve us, instead of treading that old postmodern route?

People will enjoy the silliness of The Mummy, but silliness isn't much to take away from a hugely expensive rehash of an honourable horror tradition.

This thing isn't undead - it's just not-alive.