Game vs. Watch – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Hollywood has a long history of awkwardly turning games into movies. In Game vs. Watch, Tyler reviews these feature adaptations, as well as examining the development history behind them.
Tomb Raider (Core Design, 1996)
Beautiful adventurer Lara Croft is enlisted to recover a mysterious artifact called the Scion from the lost tomb of Qualopec. When she does, her employer attempts to kill her and take it from her. Lara discovers the Scion relates to the lost city of Atlantis and quickly begins her own investigation into the location of two other pieces, as well as an investigation into what her employers want with the artifact in the first place.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Paramount Pictures, 2001)
Beautiful adventurer Lara Croft is unexpectedly pulled into an adventure when she discovers she is in possession of an artifact that, if reunited with its other two pieces in the right place and at the right moment, could give the one who possesses the artifacts the power to control time itself. Unfortunately, the secret society known as the Illuminati is also after that same artifact and will stop at nothing to get it from her.
In 1996, Core released Tomb Raider, one of the games that would help the PlayStation assert dominance over the Nintendo 64. It was more than just a big hit: the character of Lara Croft immediately turned into a phenomenon, busting out (ahem) into popular culture far beyond the reach of the game itself. Of course, anything successful in any medium other than film is immediately eyed by Hollywood as a potential blockbuster and an action-adventure franchise starring a beautiful bombshell is the kind of thing Hollywood knows how to market. A number of writers quickly began work on adapting the game into a movie and, in 2001, shortly after Core’s sequel became one of the top selling video games of all-time, Paramount released Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, which had its title thoughtfully updated to make sure everyone was well aware of what the movie was about and in what order (although eight or nine characters also say the phrase “tomb raider,” just so nobody forgets).
Looking at Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2014, it’s as if the filmmakers concentrated all of their efforts on making a film that epitomized the year 2001. The film opens with Lara (Angelina Jolie, star of the 1995 masterpiece Hackers) hanging onto a rope upside down (something that seems physically unlikely and also a feat serves no apparent purpose) before dropping down into what looks like the interior of a pyramid, with an artifact at the center of it. Before she can reach the object, a giant robot appears to attack her, and the following song cues up on the soundtrack:
Lara jumps and flips around, knocking pillars over, unloading clip after clip, none of which seem to affect the robot but certainly do a good job of damaging the dig site. After a couple of close calls, she triumphs by running at the contraption head on, sliding under and hopping on its back to rip the wires out of the back of the robot’s head. Triumphant, she goes to collect her spoils, but the robot suddenly rises up to finish the job. In a totally shocking twist, it turns out it’s just a training robot and the “artifact” is actually some sort of storage media containing “Lara’s Party Mix,” which, like the film’s entire soundtrack, consists of more music that will remind most readers of that time in high school when everyone dressed like they were extras in The Matrix.
The central premise of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is that Lara is simultaneously rich and eccentric, and also bad ass. The logical takeaway from the film’s opening scene is that somewhere in Lara’s palatial mansion, there is an elaborate Egyptian temple set where she can fight robots programmed by her weird live-in nerd pal (Noah Taylor), who sits on the computer, drinks Pepsi (TM) all day and is bad at his job (the only obvious aspect of said job being security, which he fails at). Later in the film, in one of the movie’s few effective action sequences, Lara is exercising on bungee cords in her gigantic library when a SWAT-style team storms her house, forcing her to fight off a bunch of dudes in a way that rips off Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon without having to explain why Lara is suddenly the protagonist of a wuxia action movie.
Most importantly, being rich means she has the luxury of not having to work. Work, in Lara’s case, is raiding tombs, and it’s a good thing she’s not that into it, because if there were too much tomb raiding in the Tomb Raider movie, there wouldn’t be any time for the Illuminati.
The Illuminati are the villains of the movie. Since the film was made in 2001, sadly, Beyonce and Jay-Z do not appear. Instead, there is a character called Manfred Powell (Iain Glen), who has convinced the rest of his Illuminati buddies that what they need to complete their plans of world domination and subliminal YouTube messages is a device called the All-Seeing Eye, which is basically that thing on the back of the dollar bill, with the eyeball and triangle parts separated from one another and the triangle part snapped in half. Its powers are only active once every 5,000 years when all nine planets align (hopefully we can cut that number down a bit now that Pluto doesn’t count), an event which will be followed by a solar eclipse.
You might expect Lara to find a piece of this ancient artifact in a cave or something, but instead she finds the eye part inside a clock in a closet in her house. Shortly thereafter, a bunch of guys break in and steal it (in the aforementioned “wire-fu” scene), but luckily Lara’s old man (Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie’s actual father) is the kind of weirdo who hides important poems in the binding of books as obscure clues instead of, like, locking his journals in a safe somewhere or something.
Lara has a friend in the form of American tomb raider Alex West (another excuse to say “tomb raider”), played by future James Bond Daniel Craig, sporting a hilariously nasally American accent that makes him seem more like a sarcastic accountant than a rugged adventurer. He is the Hamilton Burger to Lara’s Perry Mason, a character that exists solely to be bad at everything Lara is great at. This juxtaposition would be more effective if the movie, at any point, offered an example of Lara actually being talented, exhibiting great insight or instinct or something, but instead the screenwriters decide to make every other character really stupid.
For instance: after Manfred Powell has stolen the Eye from Lara and figured out where to go next, Lara arrives in the same location and finds West leading a crew tasked with pulling a wall down, in order to get inside a temple. Lara solves this problem by driving around the perimeter of the temple until she finds a door. Later in the film, she reaches a part of a cave with a wall of ice blocking the way, a bell hanging next to it. Lara rings the bell and shatters the ice, a solution I guess nobody else ever would’ve thought of (this seems like the kind of puzzle that plays less dumb in a video game than it does in a movie). She is also constantly being led around or given advice by potentially non-existent spirit children, a phenomenon that goes entirely unexplained.
The obvious model for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is the Indiana Jones movies, “except more radical,” says the studio executive in charge of production, peering over his sunglasses, before turning his baseball cap backward, hopping on his skateboard and rolling out of the boardroom. Raiders of the Lost Ark features a scene of religious backstory setting up its MacGuffin, the Ark of the Covenant, outlining the history of its disappearance but also elaborating on what it does and how dangerous that power could be. Boring! LC:TR dispenses with that in favor of scenes of Lara taking a shower with her mouth open the entire time or another where she shoots a dude while flying through the air on a motorcycle.
In the games, Lara is often attacked by the supernatural, including a mutant monster at the end of first game. In the movie, she is attacked by the contents of the Recycle Bins from the desktops of the animators who worked on Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy (released only two years earlier). Without the kind of set-up Raiders offers for its other-worldly phenomenon, the sequence seems unintentionally surreal. Not only is nobody surprised by the sight of walking stone golems, but the CG earns the tired criticism that a movie’s action sequence “just looks like a video game.”
Directing duties on the movie were handled by Simon West, who beats Paul Greengrass to the punch by three years with a number of frenetically cut, nearly incomprehensible action sequences. The golem sequence is the worst, frequently framing out the expensive visual effects and failing to capitalize on built-in suspense. Throughout the film, unnecessary edits interject during otherwise adequate moments without rhyme or reason, destroying the viewer’s spatial footing. West also directed Con Air, one of the most gleefully entertaining B-action movies ever made, but LC:TR strongly suggests its greatness was a fluke.
The most entertaining thing about the movie is Iain Glen’s breathy, overheated performance as Manfred (Luke Evans would go on to do a better version of this performance in Fast & Furious 6). In his introductory scene, it’s revealed he has no idea where to find the All-Seeing Eye and he spends most of the rest of the film preening like a spoiled house cat. His mansion looks like a Turkish bathhouse, with people milling about for no reason. When Lara arrives at the temple and spots West, Manfred is spread out on a fancy bed in the middle of the field, probably being fed grapes by a servant. Midway through production, someone must have realized Manfred had no cards to play and posed no threat to Lara, so there is a scene where he suggests the Eye’s powers might be a chance to bring Lara’s father back from the dead. He also tells her that her father was a member of the Illuminati as well. “My father was not with the Illuminati. He would have told me,” Lara replies. Lara does not seem to understand how the Illuminati works.
Given that the story’s conflict is that Manfred and friends might gain the power of the All-Seeing Eye and Lara’s weird ghost-child ESP and bell-ringing abilities are crucial to finding the rest of the pieces, Lara could save the day by simply staying at home. Instead, she works through her disinterest in tomb raiding in order to team up with the bad guy. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, a villain shoots Indy’s dad to motivate him to find the Grail. Anyone who thought it would be more effective if the villain had instead shot a kinda douchey guy the protagonist only sort of cares about will be thrilled to know that Manfred shoots Alex West, who clearly went from “asshole antagonist” to “roguish love interest” during reshoots, because Lara is inexplicably heartbroken by this loss.
Some very silly things happen next, including a scene of Lara and Manfred running up a time pyramid, a “frozen in time” bit that really should strike more of the bystanders as bizarre after the fact, half-hearted hand-to-hand combat, and a scene where Lara is pulled along by sled dogs without a sled, as another choice cut from the soundtrack plays. It reminds me of the pipe bobsled scene from Super Mario Bros., which is always a good thing to be reminded of when watching a video-game-to-movie adaptation.
Since it was still the year 2001 when the movie was released, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider seemed relevant enough to do decent business ($274m worldwide), enough for Paramount to try and top it with Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, a film that attempted to break new ground in title punctuation. If there’s anything positive to say about LC:TR, it‘s that it, as a film, comes close to the tone of the game it’s based on, something many other video game adaptations failed to do. Unfortunately, simplicity is not a virtue in Hollywood, so that tone was added to and built upon until what was left is a nightmare soup made by too many cooks in the kitchen. Although Jolie and Craig would go onto be big stars and are generally the kind of actors one might want to headline a Tomb Raider movie, the one that actually got made is a terminally dated time capsule not worth digging up.