Thursday, March 22, 2018

Endurance Test: Tomb Raider

Alicia Vikander in Tomb Raider.

The cross-pollination between video games and cinema is something I’ve spoken about here before. A generation of filmmakers raised on games has started to make those influences more immediately apparent in their work, which is to say nothing of the way cinema has informed the way modern games are designed and presented. This evolving media genealogy makes director Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider feel less like an anomaly and more like an inevitability.

As an almost direct adaptation of 2013’s game of the same name, which also sought to reboot the Lara Croft brand from scratch, Tomb Raider is a film infused with the language of video games, but unfortunately much is lost in translation; you could say the film’s dialect is clumsy and uneducated. It lifts action sequences wholesale from the game (featured heavily in the film’s marketing) which retain none of the tension imparted by actually controlling Lara; it borrows characters and storylines from the game but fails to mine them for the same entertainment value; and it discards some of the only narrative and tonal elements that made the game feel distinct from its source material (namely, the Indiana Jones franchise). The result is a film that will appeal neither to fans of the game, who have already paid for a richer version of the same experience, nor to general moviegoing audiences, who will be bored by the film’s cut-and-paste plot and generic action sequences.

The film’s opening scenes introduce us to a version of Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) who, unlike Angelina Jolie’s (which this movie hopes you will forget entirely), is unaccustomed to the vast wealth that is her birthright, refusing to sign the papers that will grant her the Croft inheritance because she clings to the belief that her father Richard (Dominic West) is still alive out there somewhere. Instead of trotting around in vast stone mansions, she’s more at home zipping around London as a death-defying bike courier. A clue that leads to a secret storeroom full of relics and research, where her father led his hidden double life as an adventurer, kicks off Lara’s own quest her very first to track him to the fabled Japanese island of Yamatai and save him from the supernatural curse he was investigating. She enlists the help of a Hong Kong sailor named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to brave the treacherous waters surrounding the island, and encounters a mercenary group upon their arrival which is led by a “gun-toting psychopath” called Vogel (Walton Goggins), who seeks to uncover the same secrets as Richard (but for nefarious purposes, of course). In a movie that had more personality and style than Tomb Raider does, I might describe this plot as “comfortable” it’s functional, inoffensive, and well-suited to the Saturday-morning adventure material it’s based on. I think Tomb Raider gets a bit too comfortable, however, falling so far into those tropes and clich├ęs that it forgets to do anything original or interesting with them. The biggest threat on Yamatai isn’t some Japanese death curse it’s falling asleep in the movie theatre.

Alicia Vikander and Daniel Wu in Tomb Raider.

It’s utterly bizarre to me that games that resemble movies are proving themselves to be better movies than the movies that are based on games. I understand the Hollywood impulse to catch wind of a game’s tremendous financial success and attempt to cash in on the craze with a film adaptation, but the near-universal lack of quality in these adaptations is starting to raise questions. Who, exactly, at Warner Bros Pictures looked at the 2013 Tomb Raider game -- which features a cult of crazy sailors land-locked on a forgotten island who worship a flaming death goddess and make sacrifices to giant temple-guarding Oni demons -- and thought, Yeah, let’s not put any of that in our film? Is it risky to suggest that people who come to a theatre based on the strength of the Tomb Raider brand might want to see some of the things that make it interesting and fun? What’s more, does putting a scientific explanation for the mythical powers of the ancient goddess at the centre of the plot really up the amount audiences will relate to it? Or does it actively suck out the life and mystery and atmosphere the filmmakers worked so hard to develop over the course of the film? Indiana Jones was never shy about the supernatural. I just don’t get it.

When Tomb Raider isn’t lifting things wholesale from the game it’s based on and watering them down, it’s forgetting to include key elements of this type of story that are crucial to making it engaging. There’s plenty of puzzle-solving in this film, designed to scratch the kind of problem-solving itch that Indy satisfies when he passes the Trials of the Holy Grail (or when you pick up a controller and play almost any game ever, including Tomb Raider), but Uthaug and co. don’t bother to bring the audience along with them for the fun. Lara just . . . solves the puzzles. We’re given no insight into how the puzzles work, why they’re confounding, or what revelations she comes to that allow her to solve them. We’re told in dialogue that she’s an incredibly intelligent person, and the fact that she effortlessly and instantly solves nearly every trap-laden temple test she encounters certainly bears that out. But it’s utterly tedious to watch her do so, because we’re not included in the process. We should be figuring it out just before she does, shouting, “No, not that one!” as she puts the wrong coloured stone in the slot. Instead we just watch her swap out stones, not understanding what they do, why they’re not working, or what might be the correct solution. This is the kind of mistranslation I’m getting at when I talk about Tomb Raider being inarticulate in the language of video games. What’s doubly bad is that it manages to garble the language of cinema as well.

I’m sure Tomb Raider will receive praise for its “feminist” portrayal of a tough action heroine, but I think that’s a pat and inaccurate reading. Lara gets the absolute shit beaten out of her in the movie, and when she manages to survive these horrific situations it’s not with the same triumph as Indy brushing off his countless near-death experiences  it’s grounded in this gritty realism that has Vikander choking, weeping, and screaming through traumatic encounter after traumatic encounter. When Lara rises up, there’s no joy, just a cold detachment as this once-normal girl is hardened into a jaded, empty-hearted killer. I can’t tell if this was an intentional character choice, but even if it was, it’s not terribly fun to watch, and it’s certainly not empowering. This is to say nothing, of course, of the way the film sidelines Lara entirely for major stretches, prioritizing the plot and characterization of its male participants over hers. Vikander  along with Goggins, West, and even Wu  is wasted in this film, gritting her teeth for a fierce performance that ends up doing her very little credit. The one functional relationship in the film is between her and her father, and their scenes together allow some of the talent of two fine actors to shine through, but the script and the direction undermine them both. I would sooner spend three times the money and buy the next game in the Tomb Raider series than purchase another ticket to this empty, airless film.

– Justin Cummings is a narrative designer at Ubisoft Toronto, and has worked as a writer, blogger, and playwright since 2005. He has been a lifelong student of film, gaming, and literature, commenting on industry and culture since his childhood cinema first installed an arcade.

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