I’ve been a huge fan of The Mummy* (starring Brendan Frasier) since it first came out in 1999, i.e. over 20 years ago when I knew little to nothing of storytelling technique or character development or any of the other things that we could point at and say, objectively, this is why this movie/character/plot works so well.
Since this is such an old movie, I’m not going to bother worrying about spoilers. So if that’s a thing for you, you may want to stop here and come back after you’ve seen it.
The movie opens with what is probably one of the best prologues I’ve ever seen. It’s not an info dump or context-less world-building like an article or encyclopedia entry.
First it gives us a hook.
Second it introduces us to some very important characters, the Medjai leader Ardeth Bay (played by Oded Fahr who has a great narrator voice) and the villain, Imhotep (played by Arnold Vosloo). But more importantly it establishes Imhotep as a sympathetic character motivated by forbidden love. This is very important for this story where the villain could easily have been a caricature of evil. Instead we have the perfect villain, the flip-side of the coin for our hero, Rick O’Connell (played by Brendan Fraser). Imhotep is Rick if he were evil and he is perfect because he is motivated by exactly the same things as Rick himself–love. Since Rick doesn’t start out in love, Imhotep’s love story provides a deep emotional resonance right up front in a movie that is far more a funny action adventure than a straight-up romance.
Evie, our heroine
Enter Evie (Rachel Weisz), who is immediately portrayed as a strong FEMALE CHARACTER rather than a STRONG FEMALE character (read as a Mary-Sue caricature of woman, a man-with-boobs, a vomit-inducing example of toxicity that embodies arrogance by being the strongest, fastest, smartest, most kick-ass person of every room she walks into). Unlike Star Wars’* Rae and Marvel’s* Captain Marvel, Evie is the strong character (who just happens to be a woman) that we need and want.
If you're one of those who thinks that a woman is the physical equal of a man, or that women of the past should conform to modern delusions about women's physical prowess, then you may want to stop reading here.
Evie is the brains of the operation as well as a damsel in distress, the driving force as well as the stakes character. She fulfills all these roles so well precisely because she is NOT the strongest, nor fastest, nor smartest, nor most kick-ass person in any room (much less all of them).
Solid roots in the reality of her world
She is a librarian with obvious faults. She is clumsy but doesn’t immediately shed that clumsiness when a combat scene requires it. She is smart, but she doesn’t have to walk into every situation an announce it, via “Hey, everyone, I have a chip on my shoulder about being a woman in a man’s world.” Instead, like Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice*, she works within the parameters of her world without having the world broken in order to make her look good.
She is also not a character who revels in ball-busting and the writers didn’t have to weaken the male characters in order to make her look good. Each character–whether Rick or her brother Jonathan–had their own skillset and she recognized this and didn’t strut in to show them that all along she was better at everything. She was never afraid to admit she needed help or ask for it.
Why this movie wouldn’t be made today
I honestly don’t know if this wonderful, well-written, well-acted, fun, interesting, and romantic movie could have been filmed today. (Really, guys, we don’t know anyone’s sexual orientation or preferred pronouns.)
While Evie is stuck in the library because she doesn’t have field experience, she is determined to obtain that field experience. She doesn’t blame it on “The Patriarchy”(TM) or whine about it. Not once. Shocker!
[Disclaimer: I am not and have never been a feminist studies person. I am using the term “patriarchy” and “matriarchy” as a layman to mean power held by men and power held by women respectively.]
Enemies to lovers
Without Jonathan, her con-man brother, the opportunity to get field experience would not have existed, but it is her own drive that turns the opportunity into action. Despite Rick lunging at her through the prison bars and kissing her (without her consent, I might add) she is determined to save him, and does. Even though it means putting up with the lecherous prison warden as a partner.
This sets up the enemies-to-lovers between her and Rick. While not a true enemy, that trope still fits. They start out as adversaries.
On the boat, we learn that Rick is going back to Hamunaptra because of her. He swore he’d never go back but she saved his neck. In other words, we’d have had no story without Evie’s decision to save him.
The fight on the boat
When she is attacked, she defeats the Medjai because he’s distracted by Rick (who came to her rescue). She takes advantage by poking the Medjai in the eye with a candlestick, not by taking over the fight or fighting alongside Rick. The writers did not break the world in order to make her into something she couldn’t possibly be (clumsy librarian, remember?)
What oppression does look like
The writers show us what an actual oppressive patriarchy looks like via the village where they stop to buy camels. Rick and Jonathan joke about trading Evie for the camels. But they don’t because English/American culture isn’t Egyptian culture. And it hasn’t become one since the 1920s either. Take it from someone who spent enough time overseas to know the difference.
At Hamunaptra, patriarchal prejudice is shown again, via the egyptologist, Dr. Chamberlain (played by Jonathan Hyde) who was hired by the American rivals (what I’m going to call the B-team). He’s the one who goes, “They are led by a woman. What does a woman know?” Notice that the Americans are not the ones saying it. Or even agreeing with him.
Soft power is still power
Even when the A-team and the B-team are having their little pissing contest in the tomb, it is Evie who intervenes to break it up. She suggests they dig elsewhere because she figures out it’s the wrong place. No one maligns her for making them back off. And if you don’t think that makes Evie powerful, you’re wrong. Not all power comes from intimidation, from Hulk!Smash! or from “I am woman, hear me roar” speeches.
Logic and reason
We get foreshadowing and necessary background information via Evie talking about mummification and interpreting things for Rick and Jonathan. It is clear she is the driving factor, the voice of logic and reason arguing against superstition and greed.
Proud to be a librarian
When they are attacked by the present-day Medjai, Evie is not involved in the melee. She falls and passes out running away from a man on horseback. Again, it is reasonable that she is not able to outrun a horse or engage in close quarters combat all of a sudden. Later, a bit drunk, she confesses her lack of combat skills and her pride in being a librarian. This time she is the one who asks for a kiss but unfortunately passes out before she can get it.
Opening the sarcophagus
She is the one that figures out the key and how to use it to open the sarcophagus. When they open it and find the moist mummy inside, no one blames Evie and she doesn’t scold or blame them either. It’s like they are adults and the movie is about finding treasure and defeating evil instead of modern political correctness and social engineering messaging.
Evie does tells the B-team egyptologist how to open the book. That’s a bit of a jab at the man and he deserves it. She then “borrows” the book while he’s asleep. Smart again. She has the key. She knows what to do.
And then we are shown that Evie doesn’t know it all. It was refreshing. Her reading from the book wakes up Imhotep. It also sets her up as a driving force again. One that releases the seven plagues. So she is not all-good, all-knowing, all-feeling, infallible woman. She has a fatal flaw: she trusts in logic and intellect more than she should. One might have expected a woman of that time to be more into mysticism than logic and intellect, but it is not outside the realm of possibility given her upbringing. This makes her believable and sympathetic.
She does just happen to push up against the “right” stone to end up in the tunnel with Imhotep and Henderson, the unfortunate man with the glasses. Once there, she asks him for help. She doesn’t attack Imhotep. She is afraid, but she does stand her ground as best she can until Rick and the others do come to her rescue. Again.
Evie wandering into that tunnel is what allows the Medjai to rescue Henderson and keeps Imhotep from finishing him off. It is another driving point of the plot.
Calling the shots
Evie actively thwarts Rick’s attempts to pack and leave. That’s a bit of a plot hole. She was lamenting the loss of her books and clothes when the boat sank. But her argument with Rick reveals how hurt she is by being regarded as merely a contract. So she uses her budding relationship with him to advantage. But he’ll have none of it. He is afraid for her. One might argue that there is a patriarchal aspect to Rick calling the shots. But if you do you must grant everything done at Evie’s direction as matriarchal.
When water turns into blood, who does Rick seek out? Evie of course. Because when he is out of his element, he does defer to her. Does this mean that now we’ve switched to a matriarchal calling of the shots?
It is Evie who takes them to the museum director. The museum director and Ardeth, the Medjai leader, argue with her as an equal. They don’t dismiss her. A little hard to believe perhaps, given the culture of 1920s Egypt, but at least on the museum director’s part, he has worked with her and knows that she is capable. Earned respect on that, and the same can be argued for Ardeth as well. He’s seen what she can do too.
Evil, evil patriarchy
It is Evie who says that they must stop Imhotep from regenerating. The guys agree and then lock her in her room. Yes, they did it for her own good. They knew that she had caught Imhotep’s interest, and not in a good way. If you want, you can blame it on patriarchy, evil, evil, patriarchy that tries to keep you from falling prey to a great ancient evil.
And Imhotep is a threat. He gets into her room despite everything. He is delusional, thinking she is his lost love, Anck Su Namun. Once again, Rick (and a cat) save her. Lucky for her that Rick is not a feminist prince that would have let her rot–or worse in this case.
Saving the guys
It is Evie who figures out where the Book of Life is. They need it to defeat Imhotep. In response, Imhotep ups the game, bringing an army of zombies to her door. They run, but are stopped. Faced with a choice–going with Imhotep to be reincarnated as Anck Su Namun or having her friends killed–she makes the decision to go with Imhotep. It will buy Rick and the others time. And she does expect Rick to rescue her. Again. She tells him so to his face, because she is, first and foremost, a survivor. So this is matriarchal oppression, right? I mean look at all the agency she is denying them. Wouldn’t it be better if they just went down fighting? Who is she to know what’s best for them? Shouldn’t she be getting back at them for locking her in that room?
In order to distract Imhotep (again) and save her friends (again) she kisses him. Evie uses physical attraction to her advantage, right up to kissing a man she’s disgusted by in order to distract him and save her friends. She didn’t do it by kicking him in the balls. That would have been a TSTL (too stupid to live) moment that would have served nothing except to make Rae or Ms. Marvel look good at everyone else’s expense. Instead of using physical prowess, she used intellect and (dare I say it?) feminine wiles. Something only a truly strong woman would do, because it’s a personal sacrifice for her. It involves an intimacy. It’s a parody of a kiss, of attraction, and she lowers herself to do it. She knows it’s what Imhotep wants and she gives it to him to take away his power.
Who’s saving whom again?
Tied down on the altar next to Anck Su Namun’s mummy, Evie struggles, but isn’t threatening to do things that she can’t possibly do. It’s like she’s waiting to be rescued again. I know that’s anathema to movie-makers today, but it is perfectly done because it’s the only thing she can do at this point (without breaking the world by suddenly empowering her somehow). It makes sense that she was overpowered and had no choice.
Just before she is to be killed, Jonathan and Rick show up. Jonathan uses distraction to draw Imhotep away and this allows Rick to do his thing–hacking at things. Rick then frees her from the altar. But it is Evie’s intellect that saves everyone. It is her knowledge that allows them how to figure out how to get control of the mummified soldiers and direct them to destroy Imhotep and Anck Su Namun.
Woman vs woman
Evie directly engages physically only with Anck Su Namun’s mummy, i.e a woman of equal size (here the mummies are just as strong as if they were living apparently). This keeps with nature and human biology. Unlike female “heroes” who practice waif-fu, taking on men much bigger and stronger than they are, ignoring the physics of mass altogether as if estrogen were some magical substance.
The kiss at the end is preceded by Rick saying that he’s not going home empty handed–he has the greatest treasure, Evie herself. What a male chauvinist pig, right? How dare he? (yes that was sarcasm, Karen).
Again and again, Evie solves (and causes) problems via her intellect, not her fists. Evie is a product of her world and she does whatever she can not just within those limits, but the limits of biology. She is not genetically engineering, or a magical creation, or a magician who can call up powers. She is human.
The sequels weren’t as good precisely because they took her character and broke her in order to make her more of a man-with-boobs who prefers using physical violence to solve her problems and suddenly “remembers” being trained to fight against Pharaoh’s mistress. Lame, lame, lame. And this is why we don’t like the sequel, The Mummy Returns* and will pretend that it doesn’t exist.
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