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IMAX: Mummies - Secrets of the Pharaohs
I am a sucker when the subject is ancient Egypt. Whether it's a low-polish documentary or a big-budget extravaganza, if the setting is ancient Egypt, I'm easier than a carny's mark. So I was more than happy to take forty minutes out of my day to peruse this recent hybrid documentary, originally exhibited on IMAX screens. Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs combines newly-shot documentary footage with fairly elaborate recreations, all of it narrated by the unimpeachable Christopher Lee. The short film takes as its subject matter how mummies were made, how and when they were re-discovered by Western societies, and what medical secrets they may hold for us and future generations.
Lee guides us through briskly through the aspects of ancient Egyptian culture and religion that gave rise to the preservation of dead bodies; they believed that bodies traveled along with souls to the underworld, hence the need to keep them intact after death. Prior to the age of the pyramids, the dry desert air preserved bodies naturally. But once pyramids and tombs became the burial chambers of choice, natron and other substances were necessary to preserve the dead artificially.
Voice-overs by Egyptologists continue the story in tandem with Lee's narration, describing the discovery of mummies in the modern era, and how the successful extraction of their DNA may provide us with important information on diseases that killed the ancient Egyptians. Knowing this will allow us to trace the development of a disease like malaria from ancient times to modern, aiding contemporary prevention and vaccination.
Throughout the film, we see a combination of new footage (including scenes of current excavation and research) and semi-dramatized recreations. These are executed without dialogue, which is a wise choice. (The History Channel loves indulging in these half-hearted attempts to "enliven" their sloppy documentaries.) I usually roll my eyes when a purported documentary takes the easy way out with these kinds of scenes, but in Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs, the recreations look good and seem relatively realistic. There is a lack of unnecessary theatrics, despite the visually lavish combination of sets, costumes, and CGI work.
Although the IMAX format always emphasizes the visual, there is more than enough interesting information about ancient Egyptian customs to maintain the average viewer's interest, even though I would have preferred something with a bit more depth. Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs is an involving introduction to a strange slice of world history that continues to maintain its macabre, mystical allure thousands of years after the fact.
Shot in the IMAX format with a native aspect ratio of 1.44:1, the image has been cropped at the top and bottom to create a widescreen 1.78:1 transfer for DVD. As far as the compositions go, the filmmakers must have had this aspect ratio in mind as they were shooting, because the framing looks absolutely natural. There is no sense that we are missing anything. The transfer itself boasts rich, saturated colors and deep blacks with no evidence of artifacts.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack features good separation, with a strong musical score by Sam Cardon. The surrounds are used more for ambience than for big punchy effects. It's a well-balanced track, available in English, Spanish, and French.
>There is one key feature, a 22-minute making-of featurette, which provides some interesting insights into the creation of an IMAX film. There is also some background on how research was done with the involvement of Egyptologists and other experts. There's also a kid-oriented quiz and some text-based information on Egyptian pharaohs who left mummies behind.
Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaohs is short and edifying trip, especially for those who don't know much about ancient Egypt. It's also visually involving, even on home video. Because of its brief length and lack of replay value, I'd only recommend this otherwise well-made film as a rental. Rent it.