Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, May 7, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

In the late nineties, “Tomb Raider” was a cultural phenomenon. In retrospect, this is weird. As a character, Lara Croft wasn't anything special. She's largely an Indiana Jones rip-off, combined with now hilariously antiquated ideas of “girl power” and coolness. I think it's widely understood that the character's enormous breasts was a big contributor to her popularity. And while none of this, sexy video game characters least of all, were anything new, “Tomb Raider” was still a huge deal at the time. So much so that a cinematic adaptation was inevitable. Even me, someone who had never played a “Tomb Raider” game or even owned a Playstation, was so hyped that I insisted on seeing “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” in theaters. I don't know what I expected but I was very disappointed in the film. Let's see if my opinion has changed any.

Other than following Lara Croft – the fabulously wealthy daughter of a missing lord, treasure hunter, all-purpose adventurer – this “Tomb Raider” doesn't seem to be directly adapted from any of the games. Instead, the film sees Lara facing off against the Illuminati. The secret society has been waiting for a planetary alignment, which only occurs every five thousand years. They seek out the Triangle of Light, an ancient relic that was split in half eons ago. If the halves of the triangle can be reunited during the eclipse, it will give the owner mastery over time. Lara's dead dad discovered the path to the Triangle. This forces her to both fight and work alongside Manfred Powell, the second-in-command of the Illuminati.

Lara Croft is an almost comedic attempt to create a “cool” character. The movie begins by having her swing head-over-heels off a rope. She then fights a killer robot. And this, we learn, is just her daily training routine. Lara's other hobbies include motorcycles and slow motion showers. The movie has her do “cool” things like smash delicate equipment with a hammer or grab the sharp end of a magically suspended knife. Lara is so amazingly badass, the movie tells us, that she laughs while riding a dog sled out of a collapsing temple. This is not a character but a collection of quirks left over from a Mountain Dew commercial. The sole attempt at further depth – Lara's hang-ups about her dead dad – are isolated to flashbacks.

That Lara Croft is such a ridiculous character is fitting, as the movie around her is similarly desperate to be perceived as hip, sexy, and awesome. “Tomb Raider” is a very dumb movie. There are many elements to the film that exist just to look as x-treme and flashy as possible. Lara stores the additional clips for her giant handguns in overly elaborate spring-loaded holsters. For no perceivable reason, before bed, she swings around on giant elastic straps inside her mansion. This leads into a big action scene, of course. The film is fascinated with needlessly complicated machinery. One temple includes a huge swinging obelisk, which sets off a chain reaction. Another has a giant series of rotating moons and stars. When the fantasy elements – autonomous statues of Vishnu and Hanuman, weird inside-out portals, time travel – appear, they are similarly senseless in their elaborate functionality.

Granted, there's almost a level of campy amusement to the film's insatiable need to be wicked, hesh, or sick. The scene with the killer statues, as deeply dumb as it is, is when the movie feels the most like a video game. By which I mean it's satisfying to watch it be pulled off. Yet these moments are often drained by Simon West's hyperactive direction. West employs a lot of slow motion, fast motion, needlessly quick cutting and dramatic lighting. West's direction is not incoherent but there is something joyless about it. Watching Lara flip around her mansion, dispatching random bad guys, made me feel nothing. It's so overdone that you quickly become exhausted, immune to its excess. The score – which is largely composed of blaring techno music and generic musical stings – certainly does not enliven things.

“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was largely sold on Jolie and Lara's mutual statuses as sex symbols. Fans, at the time, apparently complained that the fairly busty Jolie still didn't have big enough titties to play Lara Croft, which should tell you what their priorities were. This was such a concern that the filmmakers even padded her out an extra cup size! Angelina Jolie embodies the project's shallowness, making no attempt to show any life behind her eyes. Jolie puts on an unconvincing British accent. Amusingly, a young Daniel Craig puts on a slightly more convincing American accent as Alex, the closest thing Lara has to a love interest. Craig and Jolie have no chemistry because their characters have no heart. Jon Voight is not convincing as a British aristocrat but was cast obviously because he's Jolie's actual father. Noah Taylor is annoying as Bryce, Lara's comic relief sidekick, and Iain Glen vamps pointlessly as the forgettable bad guy.

As a twelve year old in June of 2001, I'm not sure I could've told you why exactly I was so unsatisfied with “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” I remember being pretty annoyed that the killer robot, so heavily advertised in the trailers, played such a minor role in the finished film. Now, as an adult, I realize even young me responded negatively the film's vaporousness. Nevertheless, “Tomb Raider” was a blockbuster. Bolstered by a hit pop single from U2 and even an amusement park ride, it grossed 274 million dollars. It's still the most financially successful video game movie domestically as of this writing, though I suspect an upcoming release will quickly outpace it. That's a bummer too, because “Tomb Raider” is pretty shitty. [5/10]

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