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Lasting Legacy: The Mummy At 25



Feature By: Elliott Cuff

There’s a reason so many people still relish returning to their action favourites from the ’90s. Cinema had flourished in the decade prior, and the ’90s continued to elevate the action blockbuster, pushing high-concept stories, exhilarating spectacle and freshly minted movie stars into the stratosphere. CGI did enter the conversation but had yet to reach overload status, allowing filmmakers to combine innovative visual effects with practical set pieces to glorious results. Breakout hits included sun-baked surfer joint Point Break (1991), kinetic thrill-ride Speed (1994), benchmark sequel Terminator 2 (1991) and revolutionary mind-bender The Matrix (1999). Each of the aforementioned movies crystallised the essence of a tentpole blockbuster, as did the movie that today celebrates the 25th anniversary of its release, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (1999).

It may seem hyperbolic, but The Mummy remains one of the most influential products of the ’90s. Studio heads quickly came to realise following the release of X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) that not only were comic book movies a more readily accessible source of reliable income, but they were also primed for franchise expansion. The superhero boom of the early ’00s was the death knell for the action-adventure era of blockbusters, leaving The Mummy as one the final few bastions of a more carefree time. Smaller budgets are now generally allocated to taut action thrillers that are more serious in tone, while franchise films bankrolled by deep pockets can have more fun at the expense of creative ingenuity. Still, The Mummy retains a fascinating legacy of archaeological personality and reinvention, the latter of which hoists up the reputation of the movie beyond popcorn adventure romp.

In the 25 years that have passed since the release of The Mummy, a spiritual successor to Rick O’Connell has yet to be discovered. Indiana Jones has long held regard as the gold standard for gruff adventurers, but Brendan Fraser’s portrayal of action he-man O’Connell offered an alternate archetype. Think Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China (1985) but with more competence, O’Connell is the madcap yin to Indie’s stoic yang. Fraser tackles the role with admirable aplomb, breaking the trend of grimaced action heroes who speak through their teeth as they shoot off cursory one-liners. O’Connell is handsome, charming and affably roguish, but he’s also a heroic goof. Comical pratfalls and self-assured missteps aren’t beneath him either, and we see the best parts of him appear in many of our favourite pop culture heroes, such as Mal Reynolds (Firefly, 2002), Jack Sparrow (The Curse of the Black Pearl, 2003) and Peter Quill (Guardians of the Galaxy, 2014).

Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan similarly strikes out against typical conventions. Rachel Weisz portrays Evie not as a supporting heroine or a trophy to be won by the film’s end, but as someone whose own sense of worth and purpose is unshakeable. Evie isn’t the musclebound action-man that O’Connell is, but her heroism isn’t determined by her physical strength. In one of the film’s more outwardly comedic scenes, Evie ends a drunken tirade by passionately and proudly claiming her identity. She’s not an explorer, an adventurer, a treasure-seeker or a gunfighter, she says, but “a librarian”. Evie unconsciously asserts that bookish men and women have as much capacity for heroism as those who brandish pistols and swing sabres, squarely aligning herself alongside O’Connell as his equal, not a mere damsel standing in his shadow. Her intellect saves both her and her companions on countless occasions throughout their journey, and in the end, when she’s riding off into the sunset in the arms of the hulking heartthrob, it’s her that’s won her prize, not him.

Tonally speaking, The Mummy retains the core essence of Karl Freund’s original 1932 horror film, also titled The Mummy, starring Boris Karloff as the titular reanimated corpse. Sommers’ wasn’t the first director in the frame to direct a modern adaptation of the Universal Classic Monster movie; genre filmmakers George A. Romero, Clive Barker and Joe Dante were all, at one time, attached in some capacity, and each would have created a very different film than the one we have today. Sommers wasn’t interested in rehashing a movie that he felt had become more punchline than petrifying genre piece, instead infusing horror elements with romance and the key hallmarks of an action-adventure epic. Leigh Whannell (The Invisible Man, 2020) and filmmaking stable Radio Silence (Abigail, 2024) both similarly adapted classic horror stories by tweaking them to better suit a modern audience, and it would be difficult to argue that The Mummy didn’t serve as an influence. Both movies introduced other genre elements into the mix, psychological thriller and dark comedy respectively, which allowed them to remix horror without erasing it.

Most crucial to the success of The Mummy, though, was the earnest nature in which the movie was both conceived and executed. The Mummy became the perfect storm—it isn’t a parody, nor a cheap pastiche. Sommers had come off the back of Deep Rising (1998), an action-horror with a cult following but that would be best described as dumb fun, and neither The Mummy Returns (2001) or Van Helsing (2004) afterwards could recapture the same effervescent alchemy. It is telling that each action sequence appears to decrease in size as the movie progresses, beginning with a full-scale battle in the ruined city of Hamunaptra, before downsizing to a more contained clash with a group of Medjai on-board a boat, and finally concluding with a multi-pronged fight for survival inside a tomb within the Egyptian city of legend. Each choreographed action sequence is simultaneously exciting and amusing, and the more of them we’re given the deeper we become invested in the plight of the characters and the sweeping sincerity of the romance. Despite embracing humour frequently, The Mummy never allows comedy to compromise its utopian tonal balance.

With each passing year, Hollywood has further embraced the flashy action blockbuster with the supercharged budget. Franchise instalments are relied upon to deliver substantial income, leaving less room for original movies and experimental remakes that stray from the beaten path. The Mummy is a product of a different era, and yet more than two decades later it remains a beloved action classic. It redefined heroic character archetypes and it plotted a course for future genre films to follow, but it did those things while establishing an ironclad reputation of its own. We can thank Sommers, Fraser, Weisz and Co. for the role that they each played in shaping some of our favourite characters and movies, but we’d be remiss not to also acknowledge how The Mummy is just as engaging and effortlessly entertaining now as it ever was, if not more so.

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