A typically eye-popping IMAX documentary, Mummies - Secrets of the Pharaohs (2007) has the usual plusses and minuses of such films. It's visually sumptuous and for general audiences, impressionable children and young teenagers especially it offers a nice overview of its subject, integrating just enough science and history to qualify as educational without losing sight of its main function as mass market entertainment, albeit one limited to specialty venues like science and natural history museums.
Image Entertainment's Blu-ray is likewise typically spectacular, offering a fine 1080p high-def presentation with the gargantuan, horizontal 65mm film format scanned at 8K and presented here unobtrusively cropped to 1.78:1 from its original 1.44:1 IMAX screenings. A good making-of documentary accompanies the presentation.
Narrated, appropriately enough, by the recently knighted Sir Christopher Lee - how fun it is to say that! - Mummies - Secrets of the Pharaohs is primarily concerned with Ramesses (or Ramses) the Great, also known as Ramesses II, Egypt's most important pharaoh. Typical of IMAX shorts, the 39-minute film is divided into three subsections, freely moving between recreations of Ramesses's life and reign, the discovery of Ramesses's tomb by Charles Wilbour in 1881, and the efforts by present day scientists to cull DNA data from ancient mummies to aid medical research.
The Ramesses and Wilbour segments are chiefly recreations with costumed actors on location in Egypt, in and around real ancient landmarks, on elaborate sets, and in a few shots in front of green screen process shots. The integration of real Egyptian tombs and studio sets is impressively seamless - the filmmakers don't identify what's real and what isn't, of course - but I also found this rather frustrating. If I'm watching a documentary about Ancient Egypt, I'd rather see the Real Thing, not soundstage recreations.
The recreations themselves are quite lavish. The picture reportedly cost around $4 million to make (about 100 times what narrator Lee's film of The Mummy had cost in 1959) and it's all up there on the screen. Sets from earlier Egypt epics were recycled for this production, adding to the scale. Most everything looks authentic, though even here some material was deliberately altered. For example, the filmmakers admit to changing Queen Nefertari's historically accurate but revealing wardrobe to something more discreet lest they risk offending IMAX's "family audience."
Nevertheless, the show is an orgy of eye candy, a chance to explore Ancient Egypt vicariously. Visually, the film is just about faultless, with impressive images throughout. I was especially knocked out by some of the time-lapse photography taken around the pyramids, and an incredible CGI-assisted shot showing the construction and centuries-long decay of Abu Simbel, one of the Egypt's great landmarks.
The mummification process is explained in reasonable detail. One gruesome aside discusses how, in 1994, modern scientists attempted to recreate the ancient mummification process on a contemporary corpse, a body donated to science - Eyweeeww! Thankfully, this is not shown. There are, however, some amazingly razor-sharp images of Ramesses II as he exists today; as the narration points out, he may very well be the only surviving face from the Bible. (He was, of course, famously played by actor Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.)
The picture works best when it discusses and illustrates the importance of Wilbour's discovery, which is vividly dramatized here, in a sequence where all the recreated sets and props matter not so much.
Video & Audio
Filmed in IMAX with an MSM Model 9802 camera, which in the accompanying documentary looks like a big suitcase with a monster lens at one end, Mummies - Secrets of the Pharaohs is expectedly spectacular. I was especially impressed by how well the IMAX camera and the high-def transfer rendered myriad shading to the desert sands - one shot of a small beetle scurrying away from the camera is pretty neat. The limited CGI effects are superior to those found in Dinosaurs Alive, though they're also far less complex. In any case, the opticals and recreated sets blend well with the real stuff, even on a big television screen. The location footage looks terrific, and the lighting inside the tombs (and tomb-sets) comes off well here. The disc is effectively region-free. Both 2-D and 3-D versions of the film were exhibited, but the 3-D version is not included here.
DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is offered in English, Spanish, and French. It's up to contemporary standards, capturing the desert winds, and the pageantry of the Ancient Egyptian footage.
The supplements, all in HD save for one trailer, Ride Around the World, include a pretty good 22-minute "Making Of" featurette that covers a lot of ground though, like the main feature, leans heavily on generalities rather than specifics. Also included is a mummies quiz and "Meet the Mummies" text pages. High-definition trailers for Wild Ocean, Dinosaurs Alive, and this film are included.
Visually splendiferous, somewhat superficial but a good introduction to its subjects, and for spurring an interest in younger teens and children, Mummies - Secrets of the Pharaohs is recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, part of AnimEigo's forthcoming Tora-san DVD boxed set, is available for pre-order, while his latest book, Japanese Cinema, is in bookstores now.