While the crappy films of Stephen Sommers may have gone a long way towards ruining what our collective consciousness thinks mummies really are, the fine folks at IMAX have recent unleashed a pretty great little documentary intent to set things right. Don't expect people to turn into sand or send armies of scarab beetles after their enemies here, because this is essentially 'Mummies 101' - an educationally slanted effort that presents us with plenty of interesting facts alongside some incredible footage of Egypt and some not so incredible reenactments.
Narrated with regal class and authority by the one and only Christopher Lee, the film begins by explaining the religious beliefs of the Egyptians that lead to the development and ritual of mummification. We learn why this culture felt it was important to preserve the bodies after death and how they went about doing it. As Lee explains the basic points of mummification, we then move into some of the aforementioned reenactment footage where we see what is supposed to be Ramses II and learn a bit about his lengthy rule of the country. Now, most reenactments in these types of films tend to fall flat on their face and while this still feels a fair bit out of place alongside the more natural footage, it is at least of better quality than your average historical documentary. That said, my personal bias is probably showing, because for whatever reason, historical reenactment footage tends to bug me.
Getting back on track, we then meet an Egyptologist named Dr. Bob Brier who is a bit of an expert in the history of mummies. Here we learn how various parts of the process were passed down by mouth rather than recorded and how he and other scientists have discovered the secrets to Egyptian embalming ingredients through careful study. Brier and a colleague have even gone so far as to actually embalm a body (no worries- it was left to science by its former owner) and literally create a mummy in the same way that t he ancient Egyptians would have done thousands of years ago.
From there we kick back to some more reenactments where we see some 19th century explorers tomb raiding in and around Egypt and eventually discovering the mummies. The story behind this is actually quite interesting as it involves a legitimate man of science coercing with some brothers intent on profiting off of the antiquities that they discovered. Eventually a tomb with the bodies of twelve pharaohs was discovered and the information gleamed from this excavation proved to be invaluable for the scientists involved in the study - and amazingly enough, once the excavation was complete, the tomb collapsed.
A truly classy production from start to finish, this is a lushly photographed piece that really shows how simultaneously intimidating and beautiful the desert landscapes that surround the Egyptian pyramids really are. The reenactment footage is also done with an obvious eye for detail and handled quite carefully, trying to create as authentic a look as you'd imagine would be possible which is a testament to the filmmakers' good intentions. While this won't really offer up anything that those already fascinated with Egyptian history already know, it's a great way to introduce those without a prior knowledge to this fascinating world or to get kids/students interested in ancient history. On that level, the piece is a pretty magnificent success, even if it really only just scratches the surface of this subject.
Mummies Secrets Of The Pharaohs is presented in a very strong and colorful 1.78.1 1080p anamorphic widescreen VC-1/MPEG 4 presentation. Since this feature was shot for IMAX presentation before it hit Blu-ray, you'd expect a pretty colorful and detailed presentation and that's just what Image delivers here. The image is clean, colorful and very detailed without any print damage to note and only some minor contrast blooming. Some minor edge enhancement can be spotted here and there but if you're not looking for it you're probably not going to notice it as it's fairly subtle. Print damage is a non-issue and there's a lot of texture here though some of the CGI bits are on the soft side. The CGI recreations are sometimes a bit hokey looking but otherwise the image here is very good.
English, French and Spanish language 48Khz/24-bit DTS-HD 5.1 Surround Sound mixes are included here though sadly without any subtitle options. Clarity is good, and surround usage is strong. Christopher Lee's narration is least clear and concise and very easy to follow and understand. It's not likely you're going to pull this one out to show off the home theater system but it definitely sounds better than you'd probably expect it to.
The only extra feature of any substance on this release is a twenty-two minute making of documentary, presented in 1080i HD. This featurette takes us behind the scenes with the film's director, Keith Melton, as we learn about how the cast and crew went about shooting this picture, how the effects were done, and about the importance of getting all the little details right. We get a look at how the sets and costumes were put together, how the performers went about getting into their respective roles and more. It's actually a pretty interesting piece and well worth checking out.
The rest of the extras aren't quite as interesting, however. There's an interactive trivia quiz that tests how much you learned from watching the feature, there's a fast facts section that bombards you with yet more trivia about the mummies and their history, and a 'Meet The Mummies' section where text bios for nine of the mummies featured in the movie are provided. Rounding out the extras are trailers for a few other Imax/Blu-ray releases, animated menus and chapter selection.
Frequently quite interesting and almost always beautifully photographed, Mummies Secrets Of The Pharaohs is definitely worth checking out. It's as educational as it is often times stunning to look at and while the extras are light, the feature is a strong one and this release comes recommended for those with an interest in Egyptology who maybe wish to indoctrinate their kids into this fascinating slice of ancient history.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.