Understanding the Uncanny Valley with The Mummy Returns

After resounding success Mommy in 1999, a sequel was almost immediately put into production. The Mummy Returns (Now streaming on Peacock!) Sees the return of familiar characters Rick O’Connell, Evelyn O’Connell and Imhotep, while introducing new characters including Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s Mathayus of Akkad, aka the Scorpion King.

The film arrived in theaters in 2001, when visual effects technology was undergoing a period of rapid development. There were some understandable growing pains in the formative years of digital visual effects, but it’s hard to think of a more egregious example than the rock/scorpion hybrid at the end The Mummy Returns. Even then, it was clear that something went wrong, and hindsight gives us a little clarity as to why the Scorpion King’s first appearance was terrifying in all the wrong ways.

The Mummy Returns and the Uncanny Valley

The first problem worth mentioning is more logistical than technical. During production, the visual effects team did not have the visual references needed to create a convincing digital image of Johnson. Due to scheduling constraints, they were unable to photograph fine details of his face to allow for a more accurate reconstruction. So what we ended up with was something like the digital equivalent of trying to draw a person’s face from memory.

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While this almost certainly made the job more difficult than it might have been, the effects team also faced a psychological barrier that we still don’t fully understand. They made several wrong turns and found themselves face-first into the uncanny valley.

Roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term “uncanny valley” in 1970 as a way to describe people’s sometimes viscerally negative reactions to humanoid robots. It’s often represented as a graph, with human likeness on the x-axis and likeness on the y-axis. You can then take any non-human thing you like and place it on the graph. You’ll quickly notice that something strange happens when you look at objects that pretend to be human (or human-like) but actually aren’t.

Take, for example, a stuffed animal. It’s obviously trying to look like something alive, maybe even something vaguely anthropomorphic, but our brains immediately recognize that it’s a facsimile. A stuffed animal does not cause any anxiety and, in fact, can make us feel very good. But turn that stuffed animal into a doll and make it look like a child, and suddenly things get a little less comfortable. Make this child more and more realistic, and people will start to like him less and less. For the same reason, many people who wear prosthetics prefer prosthetic limbs that are clearly artificial.

Why do some robots and animations look weird?

We’re not entirely sure why the uncanny valley phenomenon occurs, but it may have something to do with an expectation gap. When we see something clearly non-human, we are more willing to accept unusual behavior or unexpected appearance. But once you hit the “maybe human” button in our brains, we start to consider things much more seriously.

Being human (or humanoid) comes with a set of subtle subconscious rules, and if something doesn’t live up to those expectations, alarm bells start ringing in our minds. As digital tools became available, we inevitably faced the intersection of the demands of our brains and the limitations of our technology. Certainly, The Mummy Returns This was not the only chance on our first expeditions into the uncanny valley. Pixar also learned the hard way about the dangers of animating human faces in the first short film entitled Tin toy.

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Viewers loved the tin toy, but had other thoughts about the short’s other main character: a human child. One critic called the short film perhaps “the most frightening piece of animation in the history of the art form.” Interestingly, there are frames that work perfectly. The backgrounds are a bit flat, but many of the toys and other objects are animated quite well even by today’s standards. However, the child is terrifying. And, unfortunately, this makes a big difference.

On a child, almost everything below the neck is acceptable, especially when he sits still, but the face is terrible. As he chases the tin toy, you can almost feel the genuine fear as the tiny metal man flees this comparatively gigantic monster. Pixar seems to have learned its lesson from this early exit; the few human characters who appear in the later films have more stylized appearances, cleverly avoiding the valley.

It’s hard to say why we’re so bothered by poorly animated people, but perhaps millions of years of evolution have honed our ability to look for subtle changes in the appearance of our peers. Small facial movements signal everything from fear to love, and understanding these nonverbal communications is critical to our survival and the functioning of our societies even today.

Even if we can’t articulate it, we know what a person should look like, and it’s extremely difficult to reproduce artificially. The Mummy Returns tried to thread a narrow psychological needle and stumbled upon the limits of the eye.

The moment begins with the creaking of the door. Both Rick and Imhotep freeze, temporarily pausing their mortal combat, and stand in fear and surprise as the Scorpion King appears. Through the shadows we see the monstrous combination of the chitinous clawed body and the hulking body of Dwayne Johnson. Even before he fully emerges from the shadows, you realize something is wrong. The face is wrong and there is no life in the eyes.

The thing is, if you put your thumb on your face, it looks pretty good. About 80% of the creatures are convincing enough to be seen on screen, which shouldn’t be surprising. The first film and much of the second feature a lot of really fun visual effects, many of them entirely digital. If The Mummy Returns if it had just been a giant scorpion of the same level of quality, it would never have held up to that level of criticism. But there’s a higher bar—perhaps even incredibly high—when animating people. Even if these people are damn arachnids.

Watch The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, streaming now on Peacock!

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