Archive for June 24th, 2017

June 24, 2017

Bulletpoints: The Mummy

I’d like to say I watched The Mummy so that you (the reader) didn’t have to, but judging by the near empty theatre the day we went to see it, I’m not sure I’ve saved anyone anything. Nor am I saying anything original in telling you that it’s a bad film, given that even everyone who’s in it seems aware of this. Russell Crowe is having the time of his life. Tom Cruise looks like he can’t believe these words are emerging from his face. Annabelle Wallis looks apologetic, as if she knows that she had a hand in the two terrible big budget films I’ve watched this summer. (It’s impossible to tell how Sofia Boutella, in the title role, feels about the movie or her own performance; the mummy spends much of the film resurrecting her own face.)

In any case, some thoughts:

 

  • I’ve been lazy about paying attention to this film’s marketing, but must assume that someone somewhere has explicitly said it’s a reboot of both the Karloff and Brendan Fraser films (I think the Dark Universe is meant to be a set of loose film reboots, but still). Because all of the commentary around the Tom Cruise Mummy seems to focus on those films to the exclusion of all else–as if the 1930s had been the start of the mummy story rather than a temporary revival. It’s not, particularly, because of a similarity in plot–and even those two films are only broadly similar in their choice of Imhotep as Mummy.

 

  • This looks (oh no) like a grumpy “why don’t kids these days read books” complaint, but I promise it’s mostly that mummy fiction comes from and is rooted in a really specific context (here I am, discussing this at some length), so that most later iterations of the genre feel like they’re missing some key part. Plus, that context is imperial Europe, and Hollywood can only (barely) invoke imperial America.

 

  • The Mummy deals with this by shifting some of the action to modern day Iraq (with frequent reminders that we’re in Mesopotamia, The Cradle of Civilisation), thus giving Tom Cruise an excuse to be there. The archaeologist points out that an Egyptian tomb in Mesopotamia is weird and probably important, but beyond that acknowledgement of geography the viewer is left to assume that the ancient Egyptians simply wanted to get this body as far away from them as possible. There’s a sort of collapsing of space here that feels familiar from imperial literature–Egypt is Egypt, obviously, it’s where the mummies and the pyramids etc are, but it’s also all of the East, and to some extent interchangeable with other parts of that larger orientalist whole.

 

  • And yet the film must still shift its action to England–it’s England, not America, that has a history with Egypt; English people’s habit of carrying home Eastern artifacts is what shifts the action to these shores.

 

  • There’s something going on with artifacts and what one does with them. The main action of The Mummy opens with Nick from New Girl and Tom Cruise (confusingly called Nick here), US soldiers and looters in Iraq, following a map to “Haram,” which they’ve chosen to interpret as “treasure, probably”. “Haram” (I know) turns out to be in the vicinity of a village that has been overrun with “insurgents”–you can tell they’re the bad sort of native by the fact that they’re destroying some ancient Mesopotamian statuary. Luckily our heroes, loveable rogues, get in and cause some explosions, one of which reveals the giant underground chamber in which Ahmanet has been contained. Nick and Nick-from-New-Girl’s plunder is clearly bad and shows no respect for the objects or their history–the archaeologist, Jenny Halsey, shows a desire to preserve them. Meanwhile, we’re reminded that the people with whom the US army is at war are hostile to their own history and want to wipe it out. Halsey’s removal of historical artefacts is thus contrasted both with the bad natives and (cleverly) the bad invaders–anxiously justifying itself by setting up these terrible alternatives. It’s all a bit reminiscent of your friend who isn’t racist and knows the British empire did bad things, but isn’t it great that the British Museum exists? And wouldn’t these artefacts be damaged if they weren’t there? (Sometimes your friend will even point out how ironic it is that a lot of the situations from which these important bits of heritage are being saved are in part due to the countries doing the saving. [It's like raaaaain ....])

 

  • Mummy fiction does this all the time. This is a genre based in the violation of human bodies, and because of this it not only works as a sort of distillation of the imperial project (empire is built on turning [black and brown] bodies into [consumable] objects), but also the awareness of that violation haunts the genre and it needs to constantly push back against it. And so there will always be a reason, completely plausible in-text, why this violation was necessary, even admirable.

 

  • It’s interesting, then, that the film so thoroughly sidesteps questions of empire. The important connection between Egyptian and British history, the reason Ahmanet comes to Britain, the source of our information about this ancient backstory is … the Crusades. I don’t wish to generalise (#notallCrusaders) but of the various encounters between Britain and Egypt, is this really the one most likely to have involved the uncovering and preservation of important historical and archaeological secrets about Egypt’s supernatural past? Later, we discover that Russell Crowe’s secret lair (of which more later) is a part of the Natural History Museum–not the British Museum, as this piece, for example, claims. You can (I’m probably going to) argue that the NHM is as much a product of empire as the BM; you can probably argue (I’m not going to) that the Crusades are as relevant or more so to British imperial history in 2017 than the entire nineteenth century. But it seems to me that, beyond those misleading opening sections (surely a movie about Americans being gross in Iraq is going to make a political point?) the film goes out of its way to avoid being visibly about empire. (It still is, of course. It’s a mummy story.)

 

  • The refusal to discuss the Victorians is even more pointed when we’re introduced to Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll, the Nick Fury of this Dark Universe (our world, but all our classic supernatural adventure stuff is real, like a crap League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Jekyll’s organisation Prodigium is clearly set up as a sort of framing narrative for this series of films; from the specimen jars present in his labs, we know we’re going to be dealing with Vampires and their ilk in coming installments.I find myself wondering about the choice to go with specimens rather than objects (the end credits do show various Egyptian artefacts, alongside what appear to be their catalogue numbers in a [the British?] museum); mummies and vampires as natural phenomena in no way connected with any sort of cultural grounding.

 

  • The major thing that attracted me to this film was the fact that the Mummy is female. Colonial space is always gendered (oh my america) anyway; one of my favourite terrible facts about the 19th century is the existence of mummy-unwrapping parties where groups of people would get together to strip a human corpse. There’s a full appreciation of the erotic potential of veiling and unveiling inherent in both the figure of the mummy itself and more generally popular depictions of sexy Eastern women (all those veils!). It’s not surprising, then, that early mummy fiction generally depicts the mummy as a woman. (Another reason this film is better read in the context of the books.) The film buys into this completely in its early depictions of Ahmanet–our visions of her are mediated through Nick’s daydreams/trances so they’re already fragmented; teasing glimpses of trailing strips of white fabric with beautiful limbs being revealed and then concealed.

 

  • (Here’s William Prime, in 1857, fantasising about tomb robbers violating a mummy: “What fingers tore the coverings from her delicate arms! What rude hands were around her neck, that was once white and beautiful! What sacreligious wretches wrested the jeweled amulet from its holy place between those breasts,once white and heaving full of love and life, and bared her limbs to the winds, and cast them out on the desert sand!” [From here, some more context here. It’s worth noting that Prime’s fantasy violated dead woman is also white and blonde.])

 

  • 19th Century mummies are women because the East is just mysterious and feminine boutella mummy chainsand because the Victorians like to turn their anxieties into something they can also want to fuck, but perhaps most importantly because they’re violable. In these books about mysterious undead women with supernatural power, and later in films about male mummies risen from the grave to be reunited with their true loves, it’s other women who are possessed or kidnapped or expected to play host to the reincarnated spirit. It’s unusual to see a plot in which the male hero’s mind is the one taken over; and Ahmanet’s attempts to resurrect Seth in Nick’s body require him to be held down while she straddles him and so are presented to us as a sort of sexual assault.  Being terrible, the movie can’t really commit to this disorientation–we’re in Nick’s head throughout so that his possession appears more a minor annoyance than anything, and he’s still The Hero, while Ahmanet is the one presented to us as an aesthetic/sexual object. At one point, when she has been captured, she’s chained into a submissive position and tortured by having mercury pumped into her body while the characters (and the camera, and so us) hang around watching her.

 

  • Ahmanet is a brown woman, and that matters not just because of the specific ways in which she’s sexualised/sexually voracious/grotesque (there’s literal bits of missing skin on her for much of the film), but in the ways she’s contrasted with the beautiful white, blonde woman (the archaeologist, Halsey, who quickly becomes “Jenny”). Even while being possessed by an evil Egyptian death god (really, though) Nick recognises which woman deserves his allegiance and which deserves to be thrown about the room. White womanhood remains precious beyond the grave.

 

  • There was a brief, and wonderful moment when I genuinely believed that Nick’s heroic trajectory would involve accepting the necessity of his own death–it seemed a fittingly current plot development. He does accept the possibility of dying … and then survives. The spirit of Set has now entered into Nick, who the surviving members of Prodigium discuss as a potential ally. Should the franchise survive long enough for this to happen, this “Egyptian” god will therefore be represented by a white American man. Meanwhile, Marwan Kenzari gets to be unnamed attractive Prodigium employee (imdb tells me his character’s name is “Malik”) and Courtney B. Vance plays the only named black character (unless we count Ahmanet herself) and the first named character to die.

 

  • A brief note on the film as horror: The Mummy has decided to interpret the mummy genre as a subset of zombie horror, which is fair enough, since both involve reanimated corpses. Ahmanet calls up several dead bodies to do her bidding, from ordinary people who appear to have been buried under London to the crypt of Crusaders whose discovery opens the film. (It’s not clear to me if she can only do this to human bodies–she leaves a perfectly good woolly mammoth in the museum.) This leads to a scene in which Cruise’s Nick is swimming slowly through a submerged crypt, followed by a bunch of reanimated Crusaders, still in chainmail, and swimming very slowly also. It’s almost as if the film is rebelling against the recent trend of fast-moving zombies by slowing down the zombie chase entirely. It’s hilarious. Meanwhile, Nick is hallucinating/being haunted by a dead Nick-from-New-Girl. Other horror tropes–scary animals in swarms (spiders, ants, crows) appear to be working with or controlled by Ahmanet; though the cows in the field adjoining the scene of her resurrection seem unconcerned. The film does an excellent Final Girl scene–Jenny, having done literally nothing to ensure her survival, is seen alone, shivering, alive and holding a knife.

 

  • And then there’s the film’s own final scene, which I’m not sure what to make of. Obeying the compulsion to dress a bit like a mummy (Ahmanet didn’t seem to have time to get solid clothes, though she’d clearly youtubed some hair tutorials), Nick has wrapped some strips of cloth around his hands, resurrected his best friend, and … travelled to Egypt to have “adventures”. The last thing we see are these two American men, on horseback, kicking up a sandstorm, and riding towards some pyramids, as if someone had watched Lawrence of Arabia and understood that it was good but not why. I doubt the film is meant to invoke all that this image implies, but even the commitment to the image is rather telling.