(This is part five of a series about the man, the myth, the legend–the Mummy. Part one is here, or follow the “gods and monsters” tag to see all the installments. Information was sourced from a variety of books, articles, films, and museum resources, but all opinions and conclusions are my own. As we are now getting into the modern films, a spoiler warning is in effect. Enjoy!)
V – Formula Refined
2017’s The Mummy is a curious case study for anyone interested in the history or structure of fiction. A reboot of a reboot, a photocopy of a photocopy, mythologizing about a myth that is not a myth—describe it how you like. Rather than rebuilding the base structure of the story as the 1999 The Mummy had, the 2017 edition appears to be the result of a cinematic game of Telephone.
In previous installments of this essay, a comparison was made between eras of mummy films and the periods of ancient Egypt itself. If the Hammer era was the Middle Kingdom and the Fraser era was the New Kingdom, the 2017 The Mummy represents our entry into the Late Period: a time when ancient Egyptian culture, being conquered and re-conquered, attempted to save itself by aping its earlier incarnations.
Our 2017 Mummy is Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), born a pharaoh’s daughter but displaced in adulthood by the arrival of a baby brother. Rather than lose her promised crown, she dedicates herself to Set, whom the film calls the god of evil. Set then gifts her with a magic dagger which she uses to kill her father and baby brother. She intends to use the dagger’s magic to imbue a man, her Chosen One, with the spirit of the god himself. However, she is stopped before the ritual can be completed, and Ahmanet is mummified alive and sealed away in a tomb in Mesopotamia.
Three or five [sic] thousand years later, Ahmanet’s tomb is accidentally uncovered by Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), a rogue LRRP sergeant who’s searching for antiquities to loot. A call for backup also brings Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), the archaeologist who was originally tasked with finding the tomb by Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Needing to escape before enemy forces move back in, they hurriedly retrieve Ahmanet’s sarcophagus and get it on a plane back to England. But Nick’s friend Sgt. Vail has been possessed by Ahmanet’s power, and the plane crashes, breaking the sarcophagus open and unleashing her. From there on, Ahmanet is focused on acquiring Nick—who is her new Chosen One—and the dagger of Set, so that she can pick up her plan and bring the god to Earth.
Ahmanet is an oddity in the pantheon of Mummies. Unlike her predecessor Tara, she is not a sorceress-queen or a She clone; in fact, her powers and motivations call back not to Gothic horror, but to the 1999 Imhotep and the 1998 Talos Ihompe. Like Imhotep, she manifests in sandstorms and drains life from her victims, leaving them withered husks; like Talos, she has little in the way of sympathetic or redeeming qualities, and exists chiefly as an implacable antagonist for the heroes to battle against.
But in Ahmanet, we see more than simply another movie monster. Instead, the 2017 The Mummy gives us the final form of the endless transference of ideas that has haunted the Mummy since his beginning.
1932’s Imhotep introduced the idea of the Mummy himself being a victim of the curse rather than just its carrier, and the following Kharis films took that idea and doubled down on it, reducing the Mummy’s supernatural power and emphasizing his suffering. This was in turn doubled-down on with the advent of the innocent Mummy in the 1960s, and an attempt to restore the monster’s magical agency took the Gothic route and failed to make an impression. It was only in 1999 that the Mummy was returned to his former status as both victim and villain, slave and sorcerer, violator and violated. Then the 1999 film’s innovations were again copied and doubled-down on, resulting in a spate of sorcerous Mummies heralded by evil scarabs and attended by their own subordinate Mummies.
Throughout the Mummy’s history, this pattern manifests again and again: the carrying-on of previous ideas without understanding or expanding on them. While Ahmanet wears the trappings of Imhotep, she does not have the underlying story or logical structure which would explain why she can do the things she does. Instead, she is a jumble of old and new Mummy cliches. In effect, the bandages without the body.
The key to this confusion lies in the background of the film itself. The Mummy was intended to be the launchpoint of Universal’s “Dark Universe,” featuring modern reboots of their classic monsters. Instead of focusing entirely on the story of the heroes and the Mummy, a large portion of the plot is dedicated to setting up future installments of the planned franchise—introducing Russell Crowe’s Dr. Jekyll and “Prodigium,” the organization he created to fight monsters. This lack of focus results in a piecemeal Mummy, adhering to no one mythological tradition.
Yet in this, Ahmanet is perhaps the most old-fashioned Mummy of them all. She, like her Victorian predecessors in magazines and newspapers, is less a product of established myth than of the reinterpretation of established information based on exoticism.
Another manifestation of this confusion is the character of Nick Morton, the protagonist. He, too, shows evidence of having been pieced together: he shares traits of the “dashing rogue” stereotype exemplified by Brendan Fraser’s Rick O’Connell, but his role in the film is chiefly that of the damsel in distress typified by Helen Grosvenor, Ankh-es-en-Amun, and every woman ever pursued by a lovelorn Mummy. Like those women, he shares an unspecified but deep connection with the monster, who plans to sacrifice him to obtain power for herself and call down the god Set to earth. He is forced to take control of the Set power in order to banish Ahmanet, thus making himself a god incarnate—a, perhaps, more manly form of the damsel banishing the monster with an incantation to a goddess.
But despite its lack of coherence, the 2017 Mummy nevertheless illustrates just how far the Mummy has come since his first appearance in 1932. We’ve seen priests, sorcerers, kings, queens, slaves, lovers, murderers, and sadists, all donning the bandages and rising from the sarcophagus to seek their revenge. From a beginning rooted in simple fascination with a little-understood foreign, “heathen” culture, the Mummy has made his own reputation as a creature symbolizing corruption, punishment, and transformation.
And now we’ve reached the modern day. What could possibly be left to say about the Mummy in film?
Plenty! Having followed the Mummy on his shuffling journey towards vengeance, we can now turn our attention to the other half of his story: the curses and the gods that reanimate him. It’s time to discuss black magic.