Reel Talk

Tomb Raider and the Forced Origin

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I’ve mentioned it on the site before, but I’m not exactly the biggest gamer in the world. I do enjoy video games, and I’ll admit that I’ve spent a shocking amount of my recent life playing Overwatch to an unhealthy degree, but by and large I haven’t been someone who spends too much time thinking about video games. Which increasingly puts me in the minority. The video game industry is massive, and ever-growing, reaching the point where the money it brings in annually is dwarfing that of even the biggest studio releases in the theaters. So, it stands to reason that said studios have been eager to exploit that demographic, and create films based on video-game properties that can siphon some of that money into their own products. And, this has traditionally not worked well. Movies based on video games have had a pretty terrible track-record, almost none of them being of any noticeable quality, and typically not even doing that well at the box office. They’re usually little more than cash-grabs, movies that are draped with familiar aesthetics, but no real thought given to the story or craft, just a vain attempt to get people to pay money for something that seems familiar. And yet, every time a major studio decides to try it again, to finally break the streak and put out a video game adaptation that people will enjoy, people wonder if it’s going to be the one to succeed. Which brings us to Tomb Raider, the newest attempt to get a video game film up and running, and the second time that treasure-hunter and adventurer Lara Croft has been given the cinematic treatment. So, does Tomb Raider break the mold and become the rare video-game film to work? Not really!

Tomb Raider follows a woman named Lara Croft. She’s the daughter of an incredibly wealthy British Lord, but even since he vanished on a business trip seven years ago she’s been drifting through life, refusing to accept he’s dead and gain his inheritance while trying to mete out something of a life. However, she finally reaches a point where she is in need of her family’s money, and prepares to sign the paperwork. But, when she does this she also gets a mysterious puzzle-box from her father that eventually leads her back to her familial estate, and into a hidden room in what’s supposed to be her father’s crypt. And, once inside, she learns that there was more to her father’s life than she ever knew. He wasn’t a boring businessman, he was a treasure hunter, obsessed with finding artifacts that had the potential to be mystical. And when he vanished he was in the process of locating a tomb of a fabled Japanese queen who reportedly had magical powers over life and death. He felt that this queen, Himiko, could be used to bring people back to life, but he also knew that a mysterious organization known as Trinity is also looking for Himiko to use as a weapon. Lara finds this information, and becomes convinced that there’s a chance her father is still alive somewhere, and begins tracking him down. She finds that her father bought a boat in Hong Kong, so she starts following his tracks, and ends up meeting the son of the captain who sailed her father into mystery, ,a man named Lu Ren. The two agree to find the possible location of their fathers, and set sail for an unmarked island off the coast of Japan. Unfortunately, when they get there they’re shipwrecked, and wash ashore the island of Himiko, where a group of mercenaries are waiting.

The mercenaries work for Trinity, and are lead by an archaeologist named Mathias Vogel. Vogel claims to have killed both Lara’s father and Lu’s, and has been trapped on the island for seven years, unsuccessfully trying to uncover the location of the tomb of Himiko. But, Lara has thoughtfully brought along all of her father’s notes, which finally put Vogel on the right track. He plans on enslaving Lara and Lu, having them work with a group of kidnapped sailors to dig out the tomb, but Lara escapes, and begins flees onto the island, barely surviving. But, she ends up finding unexpected help. Her father has apparently been alive on the island for seven years, keeping Vogel off-track. He helps Lara with her wounds, and the two prepare to stop Vogel and his men, who arrive at the entrance to Himiko’s tomb the next morning. The two then storm the excavation site, freeing Lu and the rest of the enslaved workers, and attack Vogel’s men. But, when Vogel threatens to kill her father, Lara agrees to stand down, and help them enter the tomb. Our character then finally raid a tomb, and make their way through a couple booby-trapped areas before coming across the tomb of Himiko. Vogel opens her sarcophagus, and they realize that the legend of Himiko had been misunderstood. She wasn’t an evil witch with magic powers, she was a carrier for some sort of horrific flesh-eating disease, and that’s what Trinity is hoping to unleash. Lara and her father fight with Vogel and his men, but in the process Lara’s father is contaminated. So, knowing he’s done for, her father blows himself and Himiko up, saving the world from the disease. Lara then kills Vogel, and flees the island with Lu and the other workers, dedicating her life to stopping Trinity and their artifact theft.

 

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I understand why Warner Bros. decided to give the Tomb Raider franchise another shot. It’s a very solid premise. People lfove Indiana Jones, so taking the same basic premise but replacing Indy with an empowered female character makes a lot of sense. And, after the collective pop culture consciousness has more or less forgotten about Angelina Jolie films from the early aughts, it makes sense to think that they could give it another crack. And, they certainly tried to make things different. From what I can tell. I’ve actually never played a Tomb Raider game, nor have I ever seen those Jolie Lara Croft movies. But, from what I can gather, they went in a very different direction with this movie. Far less magic and mysticism, more practical and realistic, and a far grittier take on the character, following the more modern games than the originals. And, I think it’s more or less successful. This wasn’t a particularly memorable film, in really any aspect, but it also wasn’t a complete travesty, which is what I’m usually expecting when a film is based on a video game. It’s a very serviceable film, shot without a whole lot of flair, filled with oddly out of date music, edited in a very quick-cut style indicative of modern action, and performed with a certain hamminess that seems indicative of the story’s video game origins. It’s a decent film, but little more than that. A perfectly adequate unit of action film. Really, the only standout comes from Alicia Vikander’s performance, which fills Lara with a really charming, clever, and dedicated nature that makes her more than the fetishized badass she seems to be typically portrayed as. The only problem is, the movie just doesn’t give Lara enough to do.

This is a film that is so very clearly working from the premise that it’s the first in a series. And, as a result, it falls into a lot of pitfalls that origin movies have to. Lara isn’t fully formed, even by the end of the film. She’s still a regular person, trying to figure out this whole new life of Tomb Raiding. Which would make sense if this was a completely outlandish premise, and a character completely unlike anything we’d ever seen before. But, instead, Lara is an archetype. She’s a character that so clearly comes from the same line as Indiana Jones, and countless other adventurer characters. But, instead of just assuming that we could accept an aristocratic woman named Lara Croft who steals artifacts, we’re spoonfed her origin story. And, as a result, we’re given a Tomb Raider film that features very little raiding of tombs. We spend the whole movie waiting to get the character we thought we were getting, because she isn’t really Lara Croft yet. And that just seems like a weird decision. Lara isn’t a completely unbelievable character that audiences could never understand, thus warranting a feature-length explanation of who she is, and how she knows how to do the things she does. It just feels like they didn’t have the faith that audiences would buy a competent woman adventurer without laboriously explaining how she could possibly be this  good at her job, to the complete detriment to the film that they so clearly were hoping would launch into the type of stories everyone thought they’d be getting with this movie. And, by not trusting us, they probably have doomed this franchise to never get off the ground, never giving us the Lara Croft story they should have provided with this film.

 

Tomb Raider was written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, directed by Roar Uthang, and released by Warner Bros. Pictures, 2018.

 

 

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