Sphinx (1981)

It’s easy to see why Sphinx stinks in scenes like the one where Egyptologist Erica Baron attempts to justify her desire to get credit for a big discovery she makes by playing the gender card, complaining that men get all the breaks in her profession. It’s a scene that seems to come out of nowhere, doesn’t make you sympathetic to her since we hadn’t seen her mistreated by academia and frankly just doesn’t make any sense since the whole point of her going to Egypt in the first place was to do some research, get published and to make a name for herself. And besides, if she were a man, wouldn’t she still want credit for a discovery of such magnitude?

This pointless bit of self pity is only the most grating aspect of Erica’s personality during a film intent on featuring a woman as the central character who isn’t so much a strong, empowered heroine as a mousy whiner who displays an almost deadly combination of panicking, poor decision making, and bad taste in men in slow talky scene after slow talky scene.

After a prologue set in ancient Egypt that seems like it’s from a different, much more exciting movie with its tomb raiding and graphic violence, the movie shifts to the present where Erica is in Egypt to do a paper about the man in the prologue whose secret design supposedly kept Pharaoh Seti’s tomb from being robbed. (I was never sure why I was supposed to be interested in the secret or whether Erica could uncover it since it was clear the tomb was already looted since as soon as she gets to Egypt, she is shown a statue that was surely from his tomb.)

As is to be expected in a movie like Sphinx, villains pick the exact time she is in another room peeking to come in and kill the shop owner and steal the statue. Initially she intends to go to the police but in the first of a non stop series of dopey decisions dictated by the plot, she agrees instead to work with the slimy European reporter who also just coincidentally happens on the scene at the same time.

Frank Langella is then added to the mix as an antiquities super cop named Akmed and we can tell by his debonair look compared to the shady appearance of the reporter that it will be he that breaches Erica’s treasure-laden chamber later in the film. (Try not to laugh as she dramatically slaps the horses that were to take her back to town so that they leave without her as she then struts back into Akmed’s house to an absurdly swelling soundtrack for a night of lovemaking.)

Aside from how silly and melodramatic that scene at Akmed’s house was played, it’s just part of the film’s tonal and story issues that plague it throughout as if old King Tut himself was getting so personally offended by being associated with something so lame he laid one of his curses on it. This pyramid panty raid occurs after Erica not only witnesses the murder at the antique store, but after one Akmed’s men is shot dead saving her from an assassain’s bullet while she was touring the tombs! More perplexing is that Akmed’s man’s attempts at tailing Erica were played for comic relief up until he was killed!

Even after all this, Erica continues to behave like she’s in a bad woman-in-jeopardy TV movie, continuing to stay in hotels by herself, getting followed by a bad guy just as obvious in his stalking as Akmed’s man was, meeting with strangers at remote locations alone, and trusting every man she runs into that is somehow involved in all this. She squeals, runs and escapes and then goes about continuing to translate some papyrus or check out a ruin like inhaling all that old nasty tomb dust and bat guano was causing her to suffer from short term memory loss. Wouldn’t a normal person leave the country or at least take some steps to protect themselves after the second or third time someone has tried to kill them or been murdered near them?

Of course, what would a mummified effort like Sphinx be if it didn’t come through with a climax as desiccated as the rest of the movie? What passes for the only action in the film amounts to the least intense slow speed car chase featuring a few wrecked cars and once again, some ill-advised comic relief. There was a final uninspired shoot out where everyone double crosses each other and where all the loose ends conveniently die as a result.

And the big secret Erica uncovers about Seti’s tomb? It’s so much of a yawner that I won’t spoil it so that if you exhibit that same lack of smarts Erica did during this whole affair and actually watch the movie, you can at least be shocked by how much effort (shot on location!) and money ($14 million!) Warner Brothers spent on something with such a terrible main character, a dull and dumb chase plot and so little payoff. And worst of all we never do uncover the secret of why the movie was called Sphinx! (Or who told Lesley-Anne Down that Erica should sport a grody looking mullet!)

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