In Which There’s Gold in Them Hills
Ah the video game movie. A now nearly thirty year tradition of filmmakers clawing through the dark and trying to crack the nut of adapting one of media’s youngest siblings. In the pantheon of movie making struggles the video game adaptation stands tall amongst all other forms of cinematic storytelling with a bold question with seemingly no answer: why can’t these be great?
Now that isn’t to say that video game movies can’t be successful or enjoyable, indeed there are a swath of entries that serve as perfectly cromulent popcorn fair. Your Mortal Kombat, or recently Sonic The Hedgehog, demonstrate that such endeavors don’t have to be towering disasters. Yet there’s still a sense that the pursuit of adaptions never quite hit the mark. That something is always off, for as successful as something like Sonic is, it still feels mangled in execution. A compromised piece of studio filmmaking that hints at, but never truly embraces, the material it originated from.
There are a myriad reasons for why the video game adaptation fail on some level. One might be that many of the biggest properties are simply to abstract and lacking in narrative to be brought to feature length (the case with Mario). Another might be that players are intimately familiar with game characters and worlds that makes adaptation hard. For even franchises with strong narrative framework you still have to leap over the hurdle of the player’s emotional attachment to the way they engaged with the game. The feeling of Mario’s jump, Sonic’s run, or Master Chief’s abilities with firearms. These are tactile responses that a movie will always struggle to replicate, no matter what techno wizardry studios and directors cook up.
So it is then interesting to see the Sisyphean struggle to make this work. Hollywood pushing the video game boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down. Which leads us to 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.
The cycle for video game adaptations is one that seems to ebb and flow based around interest and available resources. After the disastrous production of 1993’s Super Mario Brothers the video game film mostly became the realm of smaller productions. Independent studios and B-Level endeavors. In a certain way, this milieu served the material better, evidenced by the success of 1995’s Mortal Kombat, that again draw the eye of studio level execs.
However that isn’t the only thing that contributed to what I will call the 2nd wave of big video game flicks. In the late 90’s the progression of technology started to push both the narrative of games and the ability for films to adapt games. Once the PS1/N64 generation of consoles took hold players were suddenly greeted to a new era of cinematic games. Grand RPGs and in your face action games could finally be translated into a more realistic world with newer graphics and the ability to maneuver in 3D space. You could render characters that kind of looked like real people.
Simultaneously digital effects work in the world of film were seeing multiple breakthroughs. From the full CG animation of Pixar, to new digital techniques used to achieve the look in films like The Matrix and The Phantom Menace. As the ability to loosen what was possible with digital effects climbed, the interest in translating the seeming similar work of contemporary video games increased. So we get a small boom of adaptions at the turn of the century that work explicitly in the post-Matrix style. Works like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and today’s topic.
So why cover Tomb Raider? Well I think it serves as a perfect representation of what blockbuster filmmaking looked right on the verge of 9/11. What Hollywood perceived as cool and worthy of pursuit to install as its big new action franchise. An aesthetic ideal for what the year 2001 looked, felt, and sounded like right up until it’s final a third. A movie obsessed with not being your daddy’s action film, and a failed catering to everything that might be hip and with it.
So we get a hot star stepping into the role of the biggest heroine of video games and the result is a nearly a total disaster. A mishmash of ideas and concepts haphazardly thrown together to try and draw a new audience in, but as always in this world, only alienates them. It should have been so easy. How could one mess up “Indiana Jones, but a sexy a lady,” and Hollywood has the answer.
The problem, once again, is that filmmakers don’t seem to have a grasp on translating a concept into a full blown movie. Tomb Raider for all intents and purposes should be a layup, but director Simon West and a bevy of screenwriters seem to have no idea how to handle the material. So in the always disastrous move, they split the difference in trying to adapt a character and concept and adapting the mechanical structures of a video game.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider follows the misadventures of the titular character (played by Angelina Jolie) as she dallies about her gigantic mansion and reminisces about her long lost father Richard (Jon Voigt). She dithers the days away until she stumbles upon a conspiracy from the Illuminati (yes the named) to procure an ancient artifact that can be used to manipulate time. So she must rush and raid those tombs before sniveling bad guy Manfred (Iain Glen) gets his grubby mitts on them. Also there’s the old romantic rival Alex West (a young Daniel Craig) to deal with as well.
Really none of this truly matters to the film. The narrative and plotting is slapdash and forced every step of the way. There’s never a true sense of direction, and even in the scant 100 minute runtime there are long sections of droning exposition to try and justify the wacky antics on screen. It’s almost if West and company are actively afraid to make Tomb Raider a rollicking adventure film. Indeed the entire first half of the picture is mostly confined to the Croft estate, and Lara even opines at one point that, “Egypt is nothing but pyramids and sand.” Not the attitude needed to propel a globetrotting escapade.
There’s a hesitancy about how the material is approached that is baffling to a certain degree. Yes the original Tomb Raider games had their fair share of silly tech and magical trinkets, but the film adaptation seems to want to focus on those things solely. Eschewing a lot of explorations of ancient ruins for befuddling sequences that would sit more comfortably in a tech-thriller from the previous decade.
This problem is indicated almost immediately with the opening sequence as Lara seems to be exploring a shrine of some sort for it only to be revealed that she’s doing battle with a giant robot programmed by her tech servant. A goofy introduction, and one that signals the movie’s disinterest in being the new generation’s Indiana Jones, and instead cycle through some coolness signifiers already extant in the era.
For the film is much more of an ape on The Matrix then other swashbuckling antecedents. Yes there are nods to Spielberg’s beloved archeologist, or Harryhausen’s delightful creatures. But all of it is background against duel fisted gun battles, some wire-fu action, and a throbbing house score that thumps along into the background. For all the desire to be the “not your daddy’s” version of a type of film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider feels like a trend chaser. The absolute worst thing to do when you want to be cool.
This tone once again bumps up the video game problems for the film. For it seems that the filmmakers insist on adding elements that “feel” like a game but translate poorly to screen. So there’s solving environmental puzzles without any real build up or consideration by the characters. Or floating objects that our heroes grasp for like an item. Or perhaps its a horrendous shot where Lara and Manfred run up the side of a fake pyramid to achieve their goal before the other or something. It’s all confused and unfocused, and makes the movie (a 100 million dollar affair) seem shoddy.
Still there’s a stench to the production that could only be born of this particular interregnum of cultural history. The misplaced Matrix theft, the bad score, the chintzy effects, the outfits, and the sense of openness to the world all give the film a sense of something from a long forgotten age. A piece shit petrified in cultural amber for us to gawk at from a perch twenty years later. Not because we’re so much more advanced, but because things have changed so drastically.
Interestingly, despite Tomb Raider’s positioning as the next big thing, it doesn’t actually land near the tonality of the mondo blockbusters that actually radically altered the Hollywood landscape in 2001. Many months later the heart on sleeve attitudes, and sweeping fantasy of both Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter turned out to be the wave of the future. And so Tomb Raider lives in memory as a cultural cul-de-sac, something given great energy at the time, and now rarely considered.
Odds and Ends
- Out of all the major movie stars to pop over the last thirty years Jolie has by far one of the worst filmographies. Populated by nothing action movies and thrillers. In fact it’s easy to say that the best movie she lended her talents to is the original Kung Fu Panda.
- Daniel Craig strangely uses an American accent here.
- Though at the time dismissed Resident Evil is arguably the only game translation at the time to have quasi-popular legacy, which may be because it just utterly ditches the conceit of most of the games to do cheesy action.
- You can tell this thing was held together by spit and wishes because it’s only 90 minutes without credits.
- Interestingly Hollywood gave this particular franchise one last heave with a sequel that turned out to be the ignominious end of famed cinematographer and Speed director Jan De Bont.
- An unfortunate line from the Wikipedia about the film’s production, “The casting of Jolie was controversial among many fans of the Tomb Raider series, who felt she wasn’t physically appropriate enough to play the large-breasted heroine.”
Next Week: The Age of Comic Book Movies begins in earnest with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man.