Wednesday, February 19, 2014

A theological review of The Mummy Returns and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Jewish date:  19 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5774 (Parashath Wayyaqhel).

Today’s holidays:  Chaoflux (Discordianism), Feast Day of St. Señor Wenches (Church of the SubGenius), Narconon Day (Scientology).

Given how bad The Mummy was—theologically and otherwise—I considered not reviewing its two sequels.  (Seriously.  That movie would have been noticeably more theologically accurate had they had the Egyptian priests pray “Hail to the Sun God! / He really is a fun god! / Ra!  Ra!  Ra! / Ra!  Ra!  Ra!”, which is silly, but at least contains some authentic Egyptian theology.)  I watched them anyway.  The people who made them seem to have tried to make them less obviously stupid and more entertaining in the style of the Indiana Jones movies, but both sequels still have stupidity problems.  


The problem is not merely that people who accidentally revived a mummy and had to deal with killing it again would be well advised to keep away from Egypt and everything even remotely Egyptian for life.  These sequels both share the original’s serious flaw that rising of dead rulers who might bring about the end of the World as we know it could have easily been prevented.

The Mummy Returns makes an attempt at constructing a theology for this series.  Long ago, a defeated warrior, the Scorpion King, pledged his soul to the Egyptian god Anubis in exchange for victory and revenge against his enemies.  Anubis accepted his bargain, and when the Scorpion King was victorious, He took the Scorpion King and his army.  And now the threat is that the a cult led by Meela Nais, the reincarnation of Anck-su-namun (the love interest of the bad guy from the last film), will resurrect Imhotep (the bad guy from the last film), and Imhotep will defeat the awakened Scorpion King and gain the latter’s powers, thus letting him bring about the end of the World as we know it.

Authenticity check:  I am not an expert on ancient Egyptian religion by any means, but this sounded wrong, so I looked up Anubis.  It turns out that Anubis was the god of the afterlife, not the counterpart of Satan.  A Faustian bargain with Anubis makes no sense, as the Scorpion King’s soul was destined to be delivered to the care of Anubis no matter what.  And since all mortals must eventually go to Anubis, unless he turns into a pathological over-worker, He has no real motivation to drum up business by getting more humans killed in the short term.  A better choice for an evil god would have been Set, who, if memory serves correctly, came to be identified as evil.  As for Anubis or any other god making it possible for any mortal to gain end-of-the-World powers of destruction, I cannot recall anything like that happening in the stories of any religion.  (If anyone has an example of this, please let me know.)  Such power belongs to gods and beings operating on the level of gods alone, and for them to make in attainable by mortals is to confer godhood.  As Imhotep and the Scorpion King, unlike the Pharaohs, have no claim to godhood, such power is inappropriate for them.

I would also like to note that reincarnation is not something I have ever heard about the ancient Egyptians believing in.  I am aware they seriously believed in the afterlife and made preparations for it.  If anyone is aware of the ancient Egyptians believing that we come back, please let me know.  The form presented, in which Anck-su-namun somehow requires her original soul being restored to her despite being reincarnated, makes no sense.

In obvious symmetry, it was not just Anck-su-namun who was reincarnated.  Evelyn O’Connell, the female lead, is the reincarnation of Nefertiri, daughter of Seti I, and she spends a nice chunk of the film regaining memories from that previous life.  Anck-sun-namun and Nefertiri did not like each other at all, to the extent that they fought in some sort of combat for entertainment of Seti I’s court (or more likely, given how they were dressed, the entertainment of emotionally immature male viewers) and took what they were doing as something more serious than a friendly match.  Likewise, Meela/Anck-sun-namun and Evelyn fight extremely seriously and try to kill each other.

If the name “Nefertiri” sounds familiar, you probably have seen The Ten Commandments, where she is wife of Pharaoh Raameses II.  Pharaoh Seti I is mentioned by name in The Prince of Egypt, where he is the father of Raameses II.  Nefertari (correct spelling), Raameses II, and Seti I were all real people, though I cannot confirm at this time who Nefertari’s father was.  As the writers of this film show no theological or historical sophistication, Nefertari was most likely co-opted as someone convenient and preexisting to oppose Anck-su-namun rather than for deeper reasons.  There was also a real Imhotep, but he lived much earlier than Seti I and company.

Pretty much everything else religious in The Mummy Returns is minor, such as small prayers asking for protection.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, while retaining many of the same characters as The Mummy Returns, changes the setting to China, thus throwing out alleged theological connections to Egypt.  The only real connections to religion in this film are some Buddha sculptures.  I would like to mention, however, that Shangri-La appears prominently in this film.  From popular culture, one might think that Shangri-La is a place from Buddhism or Chinese traditional religion.  It is not.  Shangri-La is a purely fictional place from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, published in 1933.  Shangri-La may be inspired by Shambhala, a place from Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but that is a topic for me to research another time.

Oh, I would like to note that ancient booby-trapped tombs, such as those portrayed in this series and the Indiana Jones series, do not exist.  I looked it up.  Over time they would break down and stop working, and the ancients never mentioned creating such things  Instead, ancient Egyptian tombs were frequently broken into soon after they were sealed.  One can argue that booby-trapped tombs make for a good action sequences, which is fine if they are backed up with a story good enough to counterbalance historical inaccuracies—just so long as one does not take such things seriously.

Overall classification:  Action movies with Indiana Jones envy.

Theological rating:  D- for The Mummy Returns (for recognizing that the ancient Egyptians had gods who interacted with humans, but still screwing up massively) and I for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (for lack of theological content and failing to deal with the wretched lack of theology in its predecessors).

Monday, February 17, 2014

A theological review of The Mummy (1999)

Jewish date:  18 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5774 (evening) (Parashath Wayyaqhel).

Today’s holidays:  Feast Day of St. Isaac Asimov (Church of the SubGenius), Feast of Giordano Bruno the Martyr (Thelema), Quirinalia (Celtic Neopaganism).

It has been pointed out to me that I often give negative reviews.  This being Divine Misconceptions, the blog in which I look at religious fallacies and misinformation, that is to be expected regularly.  However, the other day a friend of mine lent me a disk-on-key which had The Mummy Trilogy on it (among other things), and I watched The Mummy this morning, at it is of such quality that I must apologize to the reader (but not the people who made it) for the tone of what I am about to write.


To put it bluntly, The Mummy is a stupid movie.  Now, there is material which, despite being stupid in some aspect, nevertheless is very enjoyable.  For example, Gilligan’s Island is considered a stupid show, but the humor holds up well enough that it is still enjoyable, especially when humorous.  Or consider Galaxy Quest, which has obvious holes in the plausibility large enough to fly a starship through, but nevertheless is a hilarious parody of Star Trek and related material.  

Unlike such material, The Mummy is stupid to the core, starting with the basic premise.  Yes, it is conceivable that the high priest of Egypt Imhotep might have an affair with the mistress of the Pharaoh Seti I, Anck-su-Namun, but that is dangerously stupid, especially since they do not have the sense to carry on their meetings somewhere no one would see them together.  And it would stupid of them to murder Seti I when he confronts them; that is asking for retribution.  And it would be stupid for Anck-su-Namun to commit suicide, expecting Imhotep to resurrect her, as he might fail.  And it would be stupid for Seti’s guards, once they catch Imhotep and stop him from resurrecting Anck-su-Namun, to put a horrible curse on him which there is even the slightest possibility that he might escape and cause the end of the World as we know it.  And even more stupid, the guards did not even have the sense to destroy the book that could be used to free Imhotep, the key to open the book, and the map to find him.  And because of all this stupidity, Imhotep gets accidentally freed, people get mutilated and killed, and there is the very real threat of disaster.  This is made even worse by the characters sometime in the 1920s, seeking Imhotep’s treasure, also acting stupidly.  Such a huge mass of stupidity, untempered by anything which could mitigate it (such as making it a parody of monster-of-the-week films or imbuing it with dead-on psychological fidelity), utterly wrecks suspension of disbelief and wrecks the entire film.

This weapons-of-mass-destruction-grade stupidity is clearly reflected in The Mummy’s approach to religion:  complete incompetence.  There is no attempt whatsoever at theology or plausible depiction of religion.  Despite Imhotep being a high priest of the ancient Egyptian religion, one would never know it from his speech and behavior.  He does not speak in religious terms, nor does he perform any religious practices; the nearest he comes is to try to resurrect Anck-su-Namun magically.  His priests, who were mummified alive for no apparent reason, act no more religiously; they are just so many extras to be controlled by other mortals.  To be sure, God and Allah are mentioned by other characters, but only in minor prayers wishing others success.  The most religious action in the movie is when Imhotep rises, a total idiot starts praying to the gods of a number of religions (and Buddha, who is not properly a god), hoping that at least one will answer him.  The freeing of Imhotep also unleashes the Ten Plagues; this is a bizarre misreading of Exodus, where they are a punishment on the Egyptians (including their priests) from YHWH, not something unleashed by an Egyptian priest.  The writers are also unaware that the magi are the priests of Zoroastrianism, not a secret society meant to keep Imhotep from being freed.

Your humble blogger would also like to note that whoever wrote this film has no idea what a mummy is.  Real mummies (at least in Egypt) were meant to let the dead have an afterlife.  The internal organs of bodies were removed, and the bodies carefully preserved so that they would not decay.  The souls of the dead could then dwell within their bodies indefinitely.  The dead were thus provided with all the necessities of life (or afterlife), including food.  The Mummy, on the other hand, inverts the original intent and treats mummification as torture.  Hence Imhotep’s priests are mummified (incorrectly) alive and Imhotep is sealed away to be tortured by beetles forever.  If Seti’s guards really wanted to do something horrible to him, they should have killed him and destroyed his body so his soul would have nowhere to go.

Overall classification:  Stupid horror film with weak attempts at humor.

Theological rating:  F (like the rest of the film, stupid).