When the archaelogical thriller Sphinx opened in February 1981, it failed on its own terms, but when Steven Spielberg unveiled his own like-minded film, Raiders of the Lost Ark, later in the same year, it made Sphinx feel even more embalmed and tiresome than anyone already thought.
Lesley-Anne Down stars as a brilliant Egyptologist who becomes unwittingly embroiled in the world of black market antiquities while visiting Cairo. She just so happens to enter a little shop run by John Gielgud who just so happens to have a previously undiscovered statue of Pharoah Seti I. We know how priceless this statue is because Gielgud keeps it in a little display closet that just about any 5 year-old could break into. Anyway, some bad thugs show up and kill Gielgud and spend the rest of the movie trying to kill Down.
The initial set-up for Sphinx is effective enough to grab our interest and attention, but it's a long, slow, painful drop in quality from there. Down comes under the scrutiny of Frank Langella, as a government official trying to stifle the black market, and they eventually fall in love. Langella is such an amazing dude. It seems that every time Down gets into trouble, be it from the baddies, the police, or any other nameless individual trying to bump her off, Langella magically appears to save the day. This happens a lot. It seems that every single scene in Sphinx involves Down entering a room, or cave or wherever, and having to hide from a bad guy. She also does just about everything possible to get caught and/or killed by squealing, screaming, groaning or dropping something in order to give herself away. This woman is a complete ninny. Even more curious is the scene involving her trip to the pyramids and catacombs and acting like any other tourist by being amazed at how big the pyramids are. I dunno, but I would think that in order to have a doctorate in Egyptology and to be rather known in that field, you probably would've had to visit Egypt at least once.
Apart from containing all of these redundant and unsuspenseful scenes, the screenplay is a complete wreck. I defy anyone to accurately and completely explain this plot. There are scores of nameless bad guys with shifting allegiances, a catatonic Langella with ties to some important figure, a flashback to 1306 B.C. dealing with tomb raiders and a mysterious Egyptian architect, disappearing and reappearing papyrus scrolls, and the hidden treasures of Seti I that Down discovers in a cave that conveniently has electric lamps so we can actually see them. Plot threads are introduced and discarded, the characters barely have names let alone personalities to be able to tell who is doing what to whom or why, and Down's performance makes you want to hit her so she'll just snap the hell out of it.
Sphinx was a huge financial black hole, losing nearly all of its reported budget of $14 million. By looking at what's on the screen one has to wonder where all of the money went. It might be unfair to keep bringing up Raiders of the Lost Ark, but its impossible not to since they were released only a few months apart. It's no surprise that Down's character wasn't considered interesting enough to spawn a sequel or two (or three).
Oh, and what does the Sphinx actually have to do with Sphinx? Nothing..so there ya go.