Summer Blockbusters of Yore: The Twentieth Anniversary of an Overshadowed Trilogy
By Pallavi Yetur
Early this year, New York magazine published a feature entitled “We Are Living in the Matrix.” The February 4, 2019 issue included several pieces about the lasting impressions left by The Matrix on everything from the way we think about and engage with the internet, to how it inspired fashion houses to send tiny-lensed sunglasses and billowing leather coats down the runways, to the film’s role in the propulsion of Keanu Reeves to the top of the A-list. The whole editorial undertaking was meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the launch of the iconic sci-fi trilogy. But there was another iconic trilogy that launched just three months after The Matrix and has not received the same level of attention. On May 4, 1999, Universal Pictures gave us The Mummy.
The Mummy was conceived by writer and director Stephen Sommers as a remake of the 1932 Karl Freund film starring the OG king of horror, Boris Karloff. In keeping with the original, Sommers sets his film in 1920s Egypt. Where Sommers begins to depart from the earlier film is in choosing a female protagonist. Rachel Weisz plays Evie, a librarian desperate to be taken seriously in male-dominated academia. Her awkward Egyptology geek is a charming foil and unlikely love interest for the muscly and sarcastic gunslinger-for-hire Rick O’Connell, played by the beefy Brendan Fraser. In their search for the lost city of Hamunaptra, Rick and Evie become entangled in the vengeance quest of an ancient Egyptian priest, Imhotep, who had been cursed to mummyhood after having an illicit affair with the queen and murdering the pharaoh.
The result is visually absorbing and a damn good time. The satisfaction inherent in watching a quippy set of mismatched heroes defeat men with evil ambitions and supernatural powers is like licking peanut butter right off the spoon. What sets this trilogy apart from other ’90s action or fantasy films, and even those of today, is the unexpected feminist bent with which the trilogy wholeheartedly embraces its main female character. The homage to conventional noir romance is clear, between Rick’s planting an aggressive nonconsensual kiss on Evie, and his being stunned by his own attraction when Evie dons an exotic harem-esque outfit after their luggage is lost. But The Mummy breaks with convention when, in this case, the brawny brute is enraptured by a brainy and opinionated woman who bosses everyone around without being called a “shrew.” Though he is a bit of a lout who relies on street savvy and the strength of his imposing physicality, Rick is astonishingly not an embodiment of toxic masculinity. He sees Evie’s intelligence as an asset and does not belittle her or feel compelled to mansplain. Rick and Evie’s partnership throughout the films is one of mutuality. Despite having gender roles that are meant to reflect the reality of the era in which the films are set, the two are respectful of and curious about one another’s expertise, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company without the involvement of pesky power dynamics. Though Evie is captured and must be rescued in the first film, her knowledge and abilities are necessary to saving the day. Rick’s macho crudeness could easily become the obligatory domineering protector but manages instead to complement Evie’s talents by grounding her ivory tower. In the sequel, The Mummy Returns, Evie even finds new abilities with the discovery of her past life as Nefertiri, the pharoah’s daughter who has some impressive skills with an ax By this time, Xena and Buffy had been dominating fight scenes on the small screen for several years, proving the staying power of ladies who kick ass. Thus, the opportunity was there for Sommers to flip the proverbial script, showcasing intense fight scenes between Evie and Imhotep’s lady who herself in one scene throws two daggers that hit a couple statues of male figures squarely in their man regions.
The Matrix trilogy and The Mummy trilogy have much in common aside from their shared twentieth anniversary—compelling leading men, exceptional leading women invaluable to their respective stories, distinctly stylized sets with costumes to match. They are alike in one other respect: Each series concludes with a widely disliked (or completely ignored) third installment. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor grossed nearly a third less in its opening weekend than The Mummy Returns. But this third film, which seeks to explain the famous Terra Cotta army in China via a similar curse narrative, contains some hidden gems in the same feminist tradition as its predecessors.
Time has passed since the events of the previous film, and Rick and Evie, now that their son is grown, have retired from their lifestyle of quests to thwart an oncoming apocalypse. Though Evie is now played by Maria Bello (Weisz’s absence considered a large part of the film’s lack of popularity among fans), the character remains commanding and uncompromising. In her retirement, she stills longs for adventure, and to have sex with her husband. Most importantly, she can still fight her own mummies. The film also features Michelle Yeoh (Memoirs of a Geisha, Crazy Rich Asians), who, like Rachel Weisz, saw a career turn from foreign import actor to bona fide film goddess. Yeoh plays the guileful witch who curses the emperor and facilitates his defeat by crouching-tiger-hidden-dragoning like a boss in a fight scene with Jet Li. As in the first two films with Oded Fehr (Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo) as Ardeth Bay, leader of the Medjai warriors, people of color are represented as fully formed characters, integral non-caricatures with equal weight in the plot. Even with dreamy kung fu sequences bordering on cliché, this third film manages to avoid the level of racist stereotyping that permitted all the monkey brain eating and heart removals in the name of Kali that happened in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. However ridiculed it has been for its use of yeti and an emperor mummy who can animorph into some kind of giant horned bear, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a story that empowers and even centers around women (even giving them more clothes to wear than when they were in Egypt), proving itself as an early example of a film in support of feminism and inclusivity.
Though twenty years later, people tend to remember The Mummy fondly, actual reception has been mixed. The first film received 59 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, on which the Critical Consensus is: “It’s difficult to make a persuasive argument for The Mummy as any kind of meaningful cinematic achievement, but it’s undeniably fun to watch.” Not a meaningful cinematic achievement? Aside from featuring an enormously admirable female lead, subverting typical noir romance tropes, and being a successful reboot of a classic horror film before reboots were even a thing, The Mummy launched several significant Hollywood careers. Rachel Weisz was but a British blip in American cinema prior to her role as Evelyn Carnahan. She has since gone on to develop an illustrious, Academy Award-winning acting career (and she happens to be one half of the Rachel Weisz/Daniel Craig power couple of perfection). In fact, her recent role in The Favourite has caused a lot of lady fans on Twitter to revisit their formative Evie girl-crushes (see our previous coverage here). Speaking of crushes, though Brendan Fraser had gained massive popularity in the ’90s from Encino Man (1992), With Honors (1994), and George of the Jungle (1997), The Mummy allowed him to show off new range in his aptitude as an action hero who delivers lines (as opposed to grunts) with both gravitas and humor (Fraser has not yet won an Oscar but his multifaceted performance in 2000’s Bedazzled probably should have). Rick O’Connell was Fraser’s hunkiest role sans loincloth, earning him serious leading man status. And, most importantly, let’s not forget that it was from his role as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns and subsequent spinoffs that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson began his prolific acting career. Somewhere, Stephen Sommers is sitting back in his poolside lounge chair saying, “You’re welcome.”
As with The Matrix, the 1999 release of The Mummy also made a cultural impact, setting off not only a slew of similar monster movie remakes like Van Helsing (2004) and King Kong (2005), but also signaling the start of an entertainment trend toward treasure hunter intrigue. Dan Brown’s first Robert Langdon book, Angels and Demons, was released the following year, and in 2003, Brown’s The Da Vinci Code became a worldwide phenomenon kicking off another film franchise that followed an academic solver of historical puzzles. Then came Angelina Jolie as an English archaeologist of video game fame in 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. In 2004, ER’s Noah Wyle headlined the first of a trio of original movies on the TNT network entitled The Librarian the same year as the release of National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage.
If The Matrix had a futuristic dystopian sci-fi legacy that opened the door to the onslaught of dystopian fiction we’ve gotten since 1999, then The Mummy had its finger on the pulse of a whole new set of sexy scavengers in the vein of Indiana Jones, writ nerdy. So why was a society at the turn of the new millennium so seduced by bookish badassery? As evidenced by The Matrix, nerds had finally become cool toward the end of the dot-com era. Rather than taking a hacker approach, these archaeological stories essentially use the study of history to serve as a feel-good fantasy of potency and prowess in an era of powerlessness. As we approached the unknown of the year 2000 and what lay beyond, these stories suggested that if you’re smart and you know things, you can figure out how to beat the bad guy or unlock the big secret mystery. With the Clinton impeachment proceedings revealing lies and investigative overreaches, thinking of the Knights Templar must have been a far more palatable conspiracy theory than whatever was going on in our government. Each of the Mummy films shows a takedown of a power-hungry man by a clever and talented woman in a pre-#MeToo world. And for those of us who were the “booksmart” ones in high school, if being an ingenious history buff gets us academic accolades, a trove of priceless goodies, and a guy like Brendan Fraser, sign us up. Thus, if the inspiration of an entire subgenre of popular and lucrative books, films, and television that taps into several collective wishes does not qualify as a cinematic achievement, then we may need to re-investigate our standards.
Amidst Y2K anxieties (as well as the advent of MySpace), it would make sense for The Matrix to be the defining film of the 1999 zeitgeist. Perhaps the reason The Matrix has reappeared so much more in the news than The Mummy did this year is that the deep relevance of the former to our current social and political climate is pressing, while the latter is essentially viewed as a campy throwback. With our curated virtual personas taking center stage on the internet and in our lives, the idea that we exist in a technology-ruled simulation feels more real than ever, all as our corporatocracy of a government tries to regulate our bodies, making democracy seem ever more oppressive. But when we are drowning in the dregs of dystopic nihilism and existential dread, clinging desperately to some sense of human identity and the hope for joy, which movie do you think we’d rather watch?
Pallavi is the Lead Copyeditor and a blog contributor for The Coachella Review. Her pop culture nerddom got out of control during her undergraduate studies in Communication and Literature/Writing at UC San Diego, after which she earned her MA in Mental Health Counseling from NYU. Pallavi splits her time between practicing psychotherapy in Manhattan, freelance coaching for a consulting firm, winning silver medals in amateur pole sport competitions, watching a lot of TV, and working toward her MFA in Nonfiction at UCR Palm Desert. She was born and raised in Southern California and now lives in Jersey City, where she and her husband watch Bravo and argue over whose home state has the best tomatoes. @pallaviyetur on Instagram and Twitter