Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Hero's Journey: The Mummy (1999)

All right, y'all, I've been saying I'd do this for a while, and it's time to actually get my general coma shrugged off and do it!

Recently, John and I have been discussing various pop culture incarnations of the Hero's Journey, and what they might look like and how players might draw on them for their own characters and sagas. The stories we watch, read, and otherwise consume help inform our ideas of what heroes we like and want to emulate and what kinds of stories we tell ourselves - and also, well, they're cool and fun. So we're going to do a series where we watch movies that do a great job of showcasing different kinds of heroes who are fulfilling the Hero's Journey in their different ways, and then I'll come here and talk about it on the blog. So if you are interested in that, read on - if not, we'll be back with something more directly game-relevant in a few days!

The first movie this time is one that has obvious mythological ties, since that's a great place to start with for HJ, and is also one of my favorites: The Mummy, 1999 edition, starring Rachel Weisz, Brendan Frasier, and Arnold Vosloo. Get in here with me and let's look at the adventures of Evie, Sage extraordinaire, and her many sidekicks!

Obviously, no discussion of this movie would be complete without complaining about what a hideous mess it makes of Egyptian mythology (and y'all know who I am, so I assume this is not a surprise to you). The movie begins with a brief interlude in ancient Egypt to set up the plot, where we establish that these events are taking place during the reign of Seti I and revolve around his adviser, the mythical architect Imhotep... except that Imhotep was adviser to the Pharaoh Djoser, who reigned about fourteen hundred years before Seti I, and this is why people get confused about the enormous time span of ancient Egypt, because irresponsible people keep smushing it all together as if it were the same. Seti I's name literally means "of Set", as in Set was his patron deity, so we can all pause for a moment of silence at the loss of this incredible chance to use Set for things in this movie. Instead, he doesn't appear, and Anubis, who is basically a science nerd who lives in the basement, gets to be the bad guy of this series. Y'all, Set is right there. He also looks like a scary teeth monster. This is so simple.

Anyway, the ancient Egypt plot is a total mess and really would have been better as something we learned about through flashbacks later, but at least it goes by quickly. Imhotep is making the extraordinarily bad decision to have an affair with the Pharaoh's consort, and when he gets caught is punished by being "mummified alive" - which is hilariously nonsensical, since not only does that obviously not work because you have to remove all the wet bits and you most definitely cannot do that while someone is alive, or else they'll just rot and there won't be much left thousands of years later, it is also enormously religiously ridiculous, since mummification is something done reverently to preserve the body and allow the soul to move on to the next parts of its journey in ancient Egyptian religion. Oh, and the fake-mummification process apparently also imbues him with incredible magical powers, which seems like the absolute worst decision for dealing with your dangerous convicts. If they'd wanted to disrespect and curse the jackass, they'd just have desecrated his body and dumped it in the desert to be forgotten and probably convert him into a very angry and suffering-filled ghost, which would also make this plot work way better. But then again, this movie is based on the 1920s monster movies, which were based on hilarious white-people superstition nonsense, so I'm not sure what I expected.

(Guys, poor Anubis is being related to this plot to improperly mummify people and then let them get back up and vengefully run around later. I feel like he's developing an ulcer somewhere right now from the very idea.)

So now we move on to the actual plot, which takes place in 1920s Egypt, where colonial white people are making a mess of everything, as is their general mission statement. Our Hero is Evelyn (Evie), a librarian cataloging documents and ancient artifacts in the local library, and she is a classic Explorer/Scholar, looking to explore new things and learn everything about them with boundless enthusiasm. We chose this movie first partially because you don't get as many Sagely Heroes in pop culture as you get Warriors and Leaders, and Evie is so much of a Sage Hero, you guys. She isn't coordinated enough to hit anybody (at least in this movie - she'll get to spend some XP before the next one), she doesn't control interpersonal relationships and is in fact pretty bad at them, and she can't create or design her way out of a paper bag, but goddamn can she ride a camel directly at the artifacts and then shout information about them to her companions just in time for them not to get killed by ignorance.

If you were going to stat Evie as a starting HJ character, these would be her stats (before anything on the web):

This is a great place to look at how a character can have attributes that don't affect the story - Evie doesn't have any Lover. This might seem odd given that Rick (Brendan Frasier) promptly falls in love with her and Imhotep spends half the movie attempting to kidnap her and then do vaguely sexy bondage things to her, and I mean, most of us can see Rachel Weisz. But the key here is that while Evie certainly is attractive, that doesn't actually matter to the plot at all. She can't do things by being attractive, or empathetic, or persuasive, or inspirational. She doesn't seduce or convince people to help her; in fact, she has to repeatedly blackmail Rick to get him to help her before he catches feelings, her brother continually helps out of familial loyalty only when he accidentally fails to escape, and Imhotep's fascination has nothing to do with Evie herself, but rather is a result of him recognizing that Evie represents a reincarnation of his actual lover, and he's on a mission to get rid of her and put the person he actually cares about in there instead as soon as possible. (Now Anck-su-namun, she has Lover. People are dying left and right because they can't be chill about their feelings for her.)

So while Evie is beautiful and sweet, those things aren't how she gets stuff done. Her role in the story is not to shift events by being beautiful and sweet; it's to shift events by being swift, smart, and capable of teaching herself literal magic on the fly while everyone else panics over the walking dead. Similarly, she's got enough basic athletic skills to ride camels and duck behind the furniture in moments of stress, but she doesn't use physical skills to win the day, and she can certainly write out a report or make basic food, but she is never going to change the world with the things she makes. So she doesn't have Creator, Lover, or Warrior, because they aren't what she does as a Hero (and besides, that's what she has these other dudes for), and when she needs them on occasion, she Strives for Glory.

So anyway, Evie's brother Jonathan arrives early on with her Call to Adventure, an artifact he won in a game of chance that she realizes is ancient and contains clues to an even more ancient archaeological site, one likely to be full of treasures both physical and informational. She doesn't perform the Refusal of the Call - one of Evie's strongest traits is that she is all in on the adventure at all times - but her brother does it for her, trying to convince her not to run off and do anything dangerous. He's a pretty classic Trickster/Lover character, using his skills to schmooze his way through life by being charming and getting out of town once people get mad at him for his misbehavior, so he makes a good foil for Evie, even if his contributions tend to be the sort where he hides behind her until everything has completely gone sideways before actually doing anything useful.

We also add Rick to the party once Evie springs him from jail with the sole intention to use him as a guide/bodyguard on her epic journey into the heart of the desert to Find Stuff Out (she doesn't give a damn about the supposed treasure and she doesn't even know or believe in any supernatural phenomena out there - she's a Scholar/Explorer and by god she's going to go somewhere new and learn the pants off it). Rick's here to fill in the last missing parts of the overall skillset - he's the dude with Warrior, in charge of waving guns around and doing Action Sports over various obstacles, and he shares the Trickster role with Jonathan as well, making him good at navigating whatever situations come up. None of these people have Creator, and you can see that play out in the movie - stuff breaks, they throw away useless weapons or empty guns, and everyone is very much aware that they don't have any heals to fall back on!

The movie's plot is very much structured like a story in an RPG, which is fun to watch unfold - Heroes are given a Call to Adventure that leads them to an unfamiliar and exotic locale full of traps and magical nonsense, where they discover Supernatural Dangers and must conquer them in order to save the world and loot their rewards. They cross the Threshold once they embark on their journey, and their arrival at the city, where the sun rises and reveals it and very literally transports them into a different and older world, is a classical form of the Descent. We also get to see the sort of journeying modeled by Travel Episodes multiple times, as the Heroes take boats and horses and camels and their own feet and run into obstacles like marauding desert bandit attacks and boat fires along the way before they finally make it to their destination. The Temptation arrives once Imhotep is released but the Heroes have escaped and aren't technically required to deal with him - just like before, Evie is all about getting back on this adventure, and her companions are the ones who try to argue her out of it before realizing she's just going to run in there with no Brawn to her name if they don't go with her.

I love the fact that there are great examples of bad rolls in this movie, too - these characters do not succeed all the time. Evie continually starts disaster in classic Sage style by doing things like reading magic spells out loud without knowing what they do. You can see a lot of events that are modeled by HJ mechanics in play - for example, Evie being the reincarnation of Anck-su-namun is a pretty obvious example of the Heritage Divine Favor (Divine Favors are coming in a blog post soon, by the way!), and Winston, the helpful pilot who just shows up to get everyone where they're going in time and then dies in action, is a very obvious Faithful Ally called in by Rick having to spend a point of Reserves to get his friend to come bring a plane and take them from Point A to Point B in a hurry. They roll through the Initiation when they meet up with the bosses of the secret society dedicated to stopping Imhotep from rising and convince them to stop targeting them and give them their blessing to succeed, and their Apotheosis and Fulfillment come when they successfully overcome the mummy's scheme and lay the monsters to rest again.

The mythology remains hilarious. The idea that the Biblical plagues of Egypt are happening because Imhotep is wandering around is beyond confusing - so, like, is the Jewish God pissed off and involved somehow? If not, what are the plagues literally sent to punish Egypt for keeping the Israelites prisoner doing being attached to Random Egyptian Resurrected Dude? Also, what is even happening in the underworld that this guy is alive again and running around outside of Duat harassing the living, and why are cats "guardians of the underworld"? Don't drag Bast down there. There are other people for that.

It's not a perfect movie - it has a serious problem with Evie being the protagonist, to the point where even though she obviously is (the plot lives and dies on her determination and skills, with her starting and ending the problem and her companions usually just buying enough time for her to save the day), the movie sidelines her now and then in favor of Rick, who fits a more traditional male action hero main character mold, and in spite of the fact that sex appeal is literally just not one of Evie's things, the movie insists on having people sexually assault and belittle her and tries to sell it as comic relief, which is tiresome. It's got race issues galore, too, mostly in cartoonishly stereotyped negative portrayals of Arab people and of course the ubiquitous non-Egyptian people playing Egyptians. But it's a pretty textbook Journey, the dialogue and performances are hilarious, and you can watch some big-screen butchering of ancient Egyptian mythology without suffering through the objectively much worse 2017 reboot!


  1. And Anne's already back to wednesday posts against my wishes and Dr. orders :P

  2. And then we get to the second movie where Evi starts spending xp on warrior, then number three where she is full on trickster (I.E. spy) warrior on par with Rick.

  3. If you are going to watch a Mummy movie, this is where to go for fun. I watch it every couple of years for sheer entertainment. But a word of warning - skip the atrocious Tom Cruise thing they did. It was anti-entertainment.