Video game movies. They should work, but to so many fans and non-fans alike, there is something off about their execution. Since 1993 with the advent of Super Mario Bros, video game adaptations have stumbled on to the silver screen and fallen out of audience’s memory banks swifter than mini-discs, Adidas popper trousers, and the Nokia N-gage. Some of the most popular characters and games have floundered dramatically when it comes to the cinematic treatment. In 2001, Paramount was looking to prove doubters wrong by bringing one of video games most iconic characters to film.
When the original game made a splash in 1996, Core Design and their Parent company Eidos has negotiated with Paramount a deal in which if 45 days would pass and no work was committed on the film, the studio would have to hand the rights back to the game makers. With time at the essence, the original film went through dozens of scripts and re-works before it’s eventful director Simon West (Con Air) came on board. Further reading upon this can be found a neatly formed article by Simon Brew at Den of Geek. It’s safe to say however, it’s the likes of such bargaining set the path to what the original two films became.
It’s somewhat amusing to see the Paramount balk at releasing the somber sci-fi thriller Annihilation (2018) to all their international markets, while blanket marketing Tomb Raider to the masses for a (then reasonable) $275 Million worldwide gross. While years apart, it’s interesting to see how entrenched the mindset is. If a film is “smart” and takes more than the usual brain engagement to invest in it, a studio will panic. When you have something that can be branded and sold as easily as Lara Croft, executives will seemingly happily slog through complications, safe in the knowledge that a big return is possible. It ain’t called show business for nothing.
2001’s Tomb Raider never really amounts to more than the sum of its parts. It drips with the cynical synergy that inflects many a mainstream movie, the difference being that better films are better at making a more cohesive product. All this film is about is the surface. The coup of Angelina Jolie in the main role is less about her acting talent and more to do with her other assets. The main villain Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) practically beams when he looks at Croft and utters:
“I think I’ve never seen anything quite so beautiful, that I know so little about”
It’s a line that unwittingly sums up more about the film than one or two people may have wished. Tomb Raider may not be as overtly explicit at gazing over Jolie’s body as you might remember, but that doesn’t mean the camera doesn’t give the audience shots that don’t need to cover certain aspects of Jolie’s body but does so with a naughty schoolboy like glee. For instance, her sensual shower sequence (with a hint of sideboob), serves no real purpose other than to highlight that Jolie is an attractive actress.
This is of course where the problems lie. Croft still feels like a bunch of dudes, throwing darts at a board of Buzzwords. Sexy! Ass-kicker! Extreme! This is a film in which Jolie’s raise of an eyebrow is considered a character trait. The aforementioned clause set by the designer doesn’t help things. The film’s script is a hackneyed one, placed through the ringer by almost a dozen writers. Despite the volume of writers that took a stab at nailing Croft and her story, what we get holds no particular density.
Lara is looking the triangle of light; an item that may hold clues to her missing father (Jolie’s real father Jon Voight). Manfred Powell; who is part of the Illuminati, is also looking for the triangle for world domination because of course he is. The film is mostly a race to the triangle tried together with outrageous set pieces (that at least have a video game feel) and a half-assed romantic pairing with young Daniel Craig pulling off quite a bad American accent. One that may have been stronger, if he had more time to prepare perhaps.
Simon West; a competent action director whose Con Air is remembered a lot more fondly than this venture, does enough here to ensure he doesn’t fall into similar traps as directors of Super Mario Bros (1993) and Street Fighter (1994). He gives us a Lara Croft with more of her iconic features intact than we care to remember. Unlike those films, Croft at solves clues within extravagant tombs and shoots things with her signature pistols. We get to see Jolie perform the type of 180 turns that players should remember from the game, while the firefight that takes place in her stately home has the type of aerial acrobatics which holds the same entertaining feeling of when I played the first game many moons ago.
Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between and it’s up to Jolie to try and keep everything to together with her charisma. The problem with Jolie’s Lara, of course, is that she’s a tough sell. Jolie has fun strutting into posh auctions, kicking ass and playing with her sex appeal. However, Croft is an FHM reader’s fantasy and the film doesn’t give her enough to play with. The addition of her real father playing her on-screen father is also a problematic choice, given their well-known estrangement. Their only scene together is put together in such as way, that one can easily say that they didn’t share the room together. An issue as this relationship is meant to be the crux of the film, and one of the only bit of semi-solid character development Croft really gets.
The second entry; Cradle of Life fairs a little better as a more coherent piece, with Croft again schooling every man she sees with blatant story exposition. However, Croft’s agency is more potent, her relationship with Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler) has some actual scenes with a semblance of chemistry and a globe-trotting adventure with a bit more color to proceedings.
This doesn’t change the fact that once again this is more film about synergy than anything else. The product placement is more barefaced, we get yet another thumping soundtrack with an eye on CD sales and Jolie herself is selling an image that may have helped shift more video game copies with the game’s sixth installment; The Angel of Darkness coming out shortly afterwards.
Directed by Jan de Bont (Speed), Cradle of Life gives us stronger action sequences and appears to have little more leeway for creativity than West’s first film. This time Croft is looking to seek Pandora’s Box with her ex-partner/former lover Terry Sheridan before it can fall into the hands of a deranged scientist (Ciaran Hinds) hell-bent on destroying the world with the item.
While De Bont’s film flows a little better than the previous film, both films still struggle with being anything more than weak Indy/Bond clones with a female as a lead. The action is still fun; with the highlights being an enjoyable skydiving sequence as well as a bizarre set piece involving CGI shadow demons. Both De Bont and West are clearly working with one hand tried behind their back however as while both films put together interesting actions beats, they do very little to give us a plot worth investing in.
Despite this, there are pros be seen in rewatching these films removed from their release. For one the films play on the idea that we already know who Lara Croft is. Granted that at the point of release Croft was one of the most iconic characters in modern gaming, but neither film spends needless time giving us a well-worn origin story, something that’s bogged down some of the weaker comic book movies.
However, it’s perhaps this aspect that stops either film from giving us an actual person. After 3 hours and two movies, Jolie’s Croft is still a concoction of buzzwords and branding still. Assertive, sexy, English yet it still never feels like a real build of a character. She is Lara’s Party Mix just a blend of catchy soundtrack tunes lumped together. Jolie does well to try and give the woman heft, and both films ensure that Croft is the smartest person in the room at all times. What’s frustrating is that if both screenplays give a proper character for Jolie to chew on, it could have said something far more interesting about its gender politics. Both features hint at something, with Crofts neutered, nerdy male helpers (Chris Barrie and Noah Taylor) who diligently aid her every whim.
Meanwhile, her handsome partners in crime; Craig’s Alex West and Butler’s Terry Sheridan have clearly engaged in some type of romance with Croft yet are never to be trusted fully. The film keeps all her male “suitors” at a relative arm’s length. Even though Croft does get amorous at one point, both films show her as a woman who can take or leave sex easily, despite the Carry On Camping style immaturity that hovers over how Jolie is shot, or the slightly tired gags that crop up once or twice. The Tomb Raider films can’t be fully grown because in the back of everyone’s heads it’s still for the first generation of Tomb Raider fans who poured over game mags and early websites when talk of a nude code came out.
This is perhaps one of the biggest issues with the original Tomb Raider films. Despite the inherent sexiness of Jolie, this is still source material based on material that grew up in the era of early laddism and FHM. What made Tomb Raider interesting to guys wasn’t the feats of the character, but whether they could bang the pixels. This poses a larger problem for video game movies in general. The films are still trapped in a pre-pubescent state of mind with studio heads still unsure of their target audience other than the name and certain attributes. There’s always a feel a film like this could have been bolder with on it takes to an audience who may have first learned about grief when Aerith died in Final Fantasy 7.
Hindsight is, of course, the killer. We now see comic books and graphic novels take the mantle of king of cinema trends, with the likes of Ironman (2008) taking on the U.S Arms trade and PTSD. Black Panther (2018) highlights racial representation without even being overtly explicit. Wonder Woman (2017) and TV Series Jessica Jones (2016) have also been able to highlight more mature and entertaining avenues you can lead such larger than life characters. The last three examples have benefited by having the characters being made by filmmakers who represent them. Something that Tomb Raider sorely lacks despite. If we wish to delve deeper, even Rachel Talalay’s margined Tank Girl (1995) feels like it’s pointing the way to the future with its irrelevance and representation. In spite of its many flaws, Tank Girl still has anarchic edge to it, one you wish the filmmakers gave a little to Lara.
Croft still feels like a construct, built to please people in a particular way. Even with Sherry Lansing heading Paramount at the time, the first two Tomb Raider‘s are clearly jobs for the boys. Neatly put together by two journeyman directors to provide a certain amount of distraction but not invested enough to become the video game movie of a legacy that some are still holding out for. They are films that remind us just how interesting a movie star Angelina Jolie is, but does little to raise its character’s status, which at that point was pretty damn high. What should have been a landmark is merely a footnote. To crassly take from the first film’s soundtrack. This film may not have needed U2, but it certainly needed Elevation.