The Ancient Egyptians built a civilization that lasted almost three thousand years before its decline, and was then slowly swallowed up by the desert. Much of our knowledge about these people, and their society, lay beneath the sand for centuries before explorers began to discover and open tombs.
During the Age of Imperialism, it had become a habit for Western—particularly British and American—adventurers to spend their time practicing archaeology in Egypt; something which became even easier as time went on, and the British occupied and began their colonial rule in the country. It makes sense, then, that the fascination with Ancient Egypt would spread like wildfire through Western societies; from the popular Victorian mummy-unwrapping parties to the widely circulated legends of curses placed upon those who discovered and excavated tombs.
The original Mummy film was released in 1932, only ten years after Egyptologist Howard Carter made the famed discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Legend has it the inscription near the door to Tutankhamun’s tomb read “Death shall come on swift wings to him who disturbs the peace of the King”, which was linked with the deaths of several members of the archaeological expedition. While most of the other Universal Monster films are based on characters from gothic literature, the Mummy appears to be a monster born from this widespread Western fascination with the mysteries of Ancient Egypt, a civilization “Othered” not only by its historical separation but also its foreign nature. To this day, unfortunately, relics of the Ancient Egyptians are predominantly displayed, not in the country of their origin, but in museums such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum.
At any rate, the lore and the culture of the Ancient Egyptians has captivated people around the world; and this, it seems, has earned us a new retelling of a story whose roots go back thousands of years. On Sunday, the trailer for Alex Kurtzman’s film The Mummy, scheduled for release Summer 2017, hit the Internet. Soon after, a behind-the-scenes sneak peak followed, revealing even more thrilling details about the action-horror tale, including a look at the clash between Dr. Jekyll and Nick Morton, and best of all, an expansion from the trailer on the nature of Sofia Boutella’s cursed Princess Ahmanet.
In many interviews, writer/director Alex Kurtzman has mentioned Sofia Boutella’s casting as central to the movie—speaking not only of her talent as an actress, and her skills for movement as a trained dancer, but going so far as to say “I think making the Mummy a woman is a whole other modern way to go that feels utterly necessary. And casting Sofia to me was utterly necessary. There was literally not a second choice. It was only Sofia.” Boutella is, of course, as well as the first female Mummy, the first person actually from North Africa to play the role—making her casting significant in more ways than one. In this film, the discovery of Princess Ahmanet’s tomb takes place in the Middle East, who elaborates, “The Mummy is unearthed because of what’s going on in the middle east right now.” If Kurtzman’s film is going to be partially set in the Middle-East, in and around the continued conflict there—metaphors about Westerners interfering in foreign affairs and stirring up malevolent forces they shouldn’t have disturbed aside—it is only right to take a new approach towards arguably the most famous Egyptian character in pop culture history.
The first hints as to what sort of Mummy this film will be built around come in her name: Ahmanet. This could possible be a derivation of Amunet, a figure who will be quite familiar to anyone who has watched Showtime’s Penny Dreadful. A powerful ancient Egyptian goddess of the primordial darkness, little is known about her besides her name, which means “The Hidden One”. The inclusion of actor Javier Botet on the film’s IMDb page as a character called Set could also be significant, in concordance with Boutella’s Ahmanet. In Egyptian mythology, Set was god of the desert, storms, disorder, violence and foreigners; portrayed as the usurper who killed and mutilated his brother Osiris, and attempted on several occasions to destroy Osiris’s heir, Horus. While one could assume almost anything from these character’s names, it is hard to imagine that there is not some measure of significance to them. And working off depictions of Ahmanet’s power in the trailer—summoning clouds of ravens, clouds of sand, perhaps even raising the dead—it would not be so far-fetched to assume her position as the Mummy may be related to some sort of fearful deity. At any rate, it is reassuring to see that Alex Kurtzman and the whole team working on the film appear to have done their research.
As well, scenes of Ahmanet pre-mummification, and words from the cast and crew in multiple interviews, seem to suggest that this film will be taking the Mummy’s characterization in a different direction. Namely, actually focusing on the titular character as well as those surrounding her. In both the 1931 version of the film and the 1999 remake starring Brendan Fraser, the Mummy was given something of a backstory, but was mainly a one-note villain. There was far more focus on the human characters and their struggles than the character of the Mummy himself, making him something of a flat character.
However, since this film is attempting to reboot a Monsters Universe franchise, it would be safe to assume that the focus will be moved more onto the Mummy. We may learn more about what made her the way she is, delve into the psychology of what being cursed to lie beneath the shifting sands for thousands of years would do to a person; Dr. Jekyll’s warning from the trailer, that “she will take what she has been denied”, is as intriguing as it is ominous. We can only hope that the actual film will live up to this promise for the character, merely than having her only hiss, summon sandstorms, and appear occasionally, as a nothing more than a terrifying threat.
With regards to the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll (played, in an excellent coup for Universal, by Academy Award winner Russell Crowe), it appears this film will begin to build a mythology for a shared universe of monsters. From what the filmmakers have already revealed, Dr. Jekyll is a mysterious figure seemingly at the head of an equally shadowy secret organization, known as Prodigium—from the Latin “monstrum el prodigium”, or, “a warning of monsters”. Though the purpose and the nature of this organization is still largely veiled, it seems as if they are involved with the research, location, and perhaps even the containment of monsters; which would certainly justify their interest in Ahmanet’s rising. Whether or not Dr. Jekyll will be the Director-Nick-Fury proxy for this franchise remains to be seen; though I think it’s safe to assume that an organization that searches for monsters rather than superheroes cannot have quite the same intentions.
Like most blockbuster movies starring Tom Cruise, the film’s marketing thus far seems to focus on him as an actor, running through explosions and performing increasingly death-defying acts—which, if the film is anything like recent film Edge of Tomorrow, could be quite misleading. Current information seem to suggest that Cruise’s character Nick Morton is far from the hero of the film, with director Kurtzman unequivocally referring to him as a “bad man”. In Cruise’s body of work, he has something of a tendency to be at his best when he plays against his action-hero type; so to hear that his character will be not only amoral but also ill-equipped to handle inhuman evil like that of the Mummy is quite promising. A scene in the trailer, of Nick being awakened from the dead after a plane crash, suggests that other characters will have to worry about his intentions for more than one reason—a bad man is hard enough to work with, a bad man cursed by an ancient Mummy is another matter entirely.
The straightforwardly heroic role, refreshingly, seems to have landed squarely in the lap of Annabelle Wallis’s Jenny Halsey. According to the filmmakers, Jenny is working for the noble purpose of cultural heritage—again, appropriate, seeing as the conflict-riddled Middle East has already seen numerous tragic occurrences of terrorist groups destroying their cultural and historical landmarks. She fills the role of the archaeologist and historian in the film… And, more importantly, that of a person who is not only well-educated and thoroughly knowledgeable, but also capable and brave enough to travel through a conflict zone in an effort to save priceless artifacts. As well, Kurtzman hints that among all these admirable, heroic qualities, she also has a secret that will be “incredibly significant in the story”, and “might not be entirely who she says she is”—though he also promises she is an entirely invented character, not another established monster film character working under a different name. As with so many things about the film thus far, Jenny’s character becomes more intriguing the more we learn about her.
One can only hope that this film will live up to not only the potential built up by the filmmakers, but also to the legacy of fascination with Ancient Egypt that has existed in Western culture for so many years. Perhaps it may even pay rightful respects to one of the most prolific civilizations of all time—though this may be a more far-flung hope, it is an important thing to keep in mind, given the West’s colonial history with modern and post-modern Egypt. Overall, from where we stand here at UMU, the monster, the myth, and the legend all seem to be shaping up quite nicely… We, like many of you, very much look forward to being welcomed to this, Universal’s new world of gods and monsters.
(Anna Strauss – @citzncinematrix)