Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The tables, turned

Once, a long time ago, I saw the original film "The Mummy" with a coterie of Egyptologists from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. It was highly educational.

Tonight I watched "The Mummy 3" (whatever its official title is) with himself at home. The mummy in this case is not Egyptian, but Chinese - a reimagined Qin Shi Huang Di, played by Jet Li, with his terra-cotta warriors. Rex sometimes complains about watching this kind of thing with me, because I can't shut up about the details of the sets and the historical inaccuracies. I had high hopes for this one, because the earlier Mummy films were fabulous, though when I heard that there was no Rachel Weisz in this one, warning flags went up. But as a Sinologist, I know that Chinese culture and mythology are robust enough to support any number of Tolkienesque reworkings into fantasy, so I keep waiting to find someone who will do so. Jin Yong (the novelist Louis Cha) is the most successful so far, but he writes in Chinese; I've read and enjoyed many of his novels in the original, but the translation problem is a barrier for Hollywood. I'm still waiting for the definitive fantasy novel or film based on really Chinese historical models.

The Mummy 3 is not it. It has some brilliant moments (the zombie army that the immortal witch Michelle Yeoh raises to fight the reanimated terra-cotta warriors is made up of the bones of corvee laborers worked to death on the Great Wall of China and then buried in its pounded-earth foundations, which is a fabulous riff on the Meng Jiang Nu story), but it also mangles history, culture, and geography (a Qin-era sorceress received the secrets of immortality from Buddhists in Turfan? Qin Shi Huang Di himself is made immortal, and the witch's curse broken, by the waters of Shangri-la?). On the other hand, this also opens up the way for some no-holds-barred damn-the-anachronism fun (Qin Shihuang vs. the yetis in a face-off involving the supernatural control of avalanches!).

So the history would be fine if that were the only problem: as one of the Egyptologists said after the first movie, "It's archaeologically inexcusable, but what a great ride!" The problem, however, is also with the writing. The third film is lacking the sizzle and pop of the first two: the repartee and obvious chemistry of Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are replaced with a by-the-numbers father-son conflict, and the "romance" between the younger leads is utterly unearned. Too bad; the movie is not exactly a waste of time (and certainly shows the advances in CGI we've seen since the first movie) but it is not what it could have been, and what it could have been was fantastic.

1 comment:

mindy said...

I was sort of afraid to ask if you'd seen it -- I figured your opinion would be "I have decided to ignore everything except Michelle Yeoh's terrific costumes." (I, too, was surprised at what a difference the lack of Rachel Weisz made.)