The new Tomb Raider film comes out this week with a bright new reboot and plot. Sam Brooks goes back eighteen years to see what made the first films so successful – and how they’ve ruined video game movies ever since.
A blocky 540-polygon woman with triangular breasts wanders through a snowy hallway; she’s in a cave in the middle of Peru. She’s alone, as she runs down the hallway she dodges a few arrows triggered to shoot by her steps, a classic trap. She draws two guns – guns which will later become iconic and as key to the character as her triangular breasts – and shoots at some bats. She goes further and further into the cave to reveal that she’s not in a cave. She’s in a tomb.
This is the opening of Tomb Raider, a hit 1996 game that turned the Playstation 1 from an also-ran into a bonafide console juggernaut. It started a video game series that has survived two reboots and at least one critical drubbing that should’ve been a series killer, and has sold 63 million copies worldwide. Lara Croft, the titular tomb raider, is so popular she was the brand image for Timberland and Lucozade, starring in TV ads for the latter. She remains one of the most popular video game characters of all time.
So popular in fact, that these games were turned into two movies, with a third coming out this week.
Take the opening of the 2000 movie, properly titled Lara Croft: Tomb Raider but called Tomb Raider here for brevity’s sake.
We start off in what appears to be a tomb. Lara hangs from a rope in the iconic short pants and tight shirt which are not appropriate for any kind of tomb raiding or archaeology whatsoever, with an equally inappropriate French braid. Then she jumps down with the iconic somersault motion that is a staple of Lara’s moveset from the games. She wanders around the tomb, which looks like it could’ve come out of any the games preceding this movie’s release. We get a few loving shots of Lara’s figure – including the (and yes, I’m using this word again, but it genuinely applies) iconic double pistols which are synonymous with the Lara Croft look of this era.
And then she has a huge fuck-off fight with a giant robot, which is… not very Tomb Raider, but we’ll allow it. But what is very Tomb Raider is everything Lara does in the fight. She shoots with two guns with improbable and terrifying accuracy, she has seemingly infinite ammo, she does even more improbable Olympic-level gymnastic leaps. She has a revelation halfway through and starts shooting the environment, rather than the huge robot thing attacking her. She’s not a dumb action hero, she’s smart, she’s an archaeologist, she’s a Tomb Raider, you guys.
She eventually beats the robot and laughs in a terrible British accent.
The Tomb Raider films were bizarrely successful, if you consider where video game movies had been before (the hugely reviled Super Mario Bros. and Mortal Kombat films). The first film grossed over $270 million worldwide, the second over $150 million. It had a bizarrely successful soundtrack, with hit Basement Jaxx and U2 songs (the latter’s video even features scenes from the movie – remember when music videos did that?) on the soundtrack, and even a somewhat dubious Fatboy Slim track.
Even though they weren’t huge critical successes, the movies were loyal to the games, their lore and their style; this is the key to their success. There are big action set pieces, but the movies aren’t so much about Lara shooting things as exploring dark tombs, revealing old conspiracies, and trying to stop the bad guy from getting the artifacts with which they plan to ruin the world. The plot of either Tomb Raider film – and even the modular structure of going from one beautiful international locale to anorther – could actually be in a Tomb Raider game. Very few other video game movies actually manage to do this.
The other key to their success is they came before a whole glut of copy cat movies that concentrated on aping Tomb Raider rather than the games on which they were based.
Take Resident Evil, which ditched the spooky tone of the games to go full action film, with a little bit of horror on the side. Resident Evil resembles the Tomb Raider films more than it does the games it comes from: it casts a charismatic female lead who can emotionally and physically carry an action film, throws some set-pieces at her, and goes on its merry way. (The later films went crazy places entirely, as this piece here will tell you.)
Take Doom: ditched the spooky tone of the games, went full action film with none of the depth or humour that the Doom games revel in. Doom is a big dumb action film, and while Tomb Raider is big and dumb, at least it’s big and dumb in the exact same way the games were.
And take Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. While it is technically the highest grossing video game movie of all time, it ditches the wonder, the humour and the simplicity of its source material to… throw in a lot of big action set pieces and an ancient conspiracy, then set up a sequel that everybody involved should have known was never going to come.
These films are not trying to do their own thing, they’re not trying to adapt the game they came from, they’re not even trying to recreate that game – they’re just trying to be Tomb Raider. And they all fail pretty spectacularly at it. (This is not even counting the numerous Uwe Boll films which were essentially made to give their investors tax breaks, or the ludicrous almost fully CGI Warcraft film which, resembles no other piece of entertainment media I’ve ever seen.)
Tomb Raider was also extraordinarily lucky to come out exactly when it did, the year 2000. The movies have CG – the second one especially, including a horrendous sequence that seems to presage all the dated-upon-arrival CG since – but they’re not reliant on it. Most of the set pieces come from seeing the actual actors be in the actual places they’re shooting. When you see Lara Croft in a sacred Cambodian temple, she’s not in front of a green screen, she is actually there. When Lara Croft is doing bungee ballet – a still tremendous, audacious and truly strange fight scene – there’s an actual human doing it.
It also came at a time where video game graphics were pretty crap, to be honest. So being able to see a real-life version of a game you could only play on your shitty 13″ screen was a big deal. Even a few years later, that novelty wasn’t there, but in 2000, it was huge. It wasn’t quite like people watching that early silent movie of the train coming into a station and being scared the train was about to hit them, but it was pretty close, you guys.
And the third, final, and maybe most key reason why Tomb Raider worked while all these other video game movies have not? They featured a goddamned star.
Despite her strong-yet-regionless British accent, Angelina Jolie is a perfect Lara Croft. Jolie was one of the most famous women in the world at the time: she’d just come off the back of winning an Oscar and was in the tabloids pretty much constantly. Here was a hugely charismatic presence that could fill Lara Croft’s brown lace-up boots. Jolie is also a good enough actor to be able to stitch together the loosely defined character traits of Lara Croft: Indiana Jones meets James Bond meets Carmen Sandiego. She can be wry when she needs to be, she can do the crying when she needs to (the film pits her against her real life father in the first and last scene they’ve ever shared together, and it’s a strangely and unnecessarily deep scene as a result) and, most importantly, she looks like someone who spend her time jumping around tombs and shooting things that need to be shot. It’s what makes Jolie one of the few believable action stars of her era, and it works well for her here.
Other video game movies have never managed to nab a star on the scale of Jolie, or one who matched as cleanly and perfectly up to their character as Jolie did. You got the very-not-Persian Jake Gyllenhaal playing the Prince of Persia, you got a shaven-headed and leeched-of-charisma Timothy Olyphant playing Agent 47 in Hitman, and you got whatever the hell people were trying to do in Warcraft.
Lara Croft was huge in 2000, and so was Angelina Jolie. It’s not an amazing performance, it’s not going to win her any awards, but as casting goes, it’s about as perfect as it comes. She’s the movie’s best asset and it’s biggest pull, and she gives these movies an emotional weight and a cred that no other video game movie has had since.
Which makes me worried about the latest films. The trailer makes it very clear that these are not the old films, and they can’t be.
The Tomb Raider video game series has gone through two reboots in the period since Cradle of Life. The reboot that directly followed the film series seemed to take its cues largely from the films. They were funnier, more action-driven, more plot-driven, and they gave Lara more of both a backbone and a personality. This is personally my favourite era of Tomb Raider, where they actually match the portentousness of the game’s ancient conspiracy claptrap with a tremendous silliness and engaging gameplay. But, for whatever reason, it couldn’t last. Uncharted took what this era of Tomb Raider did and perfected it, and the series had to evolve to change with it.
The reboot that followed was a perhaps predictable evolution. It went from being silly, over-the-top and fun to grimdark and hopelessly serious. These games look more like an episode of The Walking Dead than the Tomb Raider of old, taking a young Lara and showing us what it was really like for her. These games are more about surviving the wilderness (and hundred and hundreds of private mercenaries) than they are about raiding tombs.
And this latest film reboot is taking its cues from the game reboot in the biggest way. In the trailer you can see the style is very much the new Lara: younger face, brighter eyes, inexplicable amounts of mud. The weapons that have become staples of these new games – the box and arrow, the pickaxe – are prominently displayed. And it seems very much interested in being taken seriously. This is not a movie where Lara is going to punch a shark and then ride it to the surface of the ocean, and we’re all the worse off for it. The one promising thing about the trailer is that it seems to be actually trying to adapt the feel and the tone of these new games; it’s trying to be a video game movie, not just a movie that happens to be adapted from a video game.
The one not promising thing about it is Alicia Vikander who, like Jolie in 2000, is coming off the back of a Best Supporting Actress Oscar win (if all the Lara Crofts are coming from Best Supporting Actress Oscar winners, let’s get Mo’Nique’s take on Lara Croft immediately). Vikander is a good actress who has sometimes been great, but she has an inherent neutrality that doesn’t bode well for the lead of an action movie franchise.
The Lara that Jolie had to inhabit was a cipher, a quilt of traits rather than a fully-formed character, but Jolie breathed life, or something like it, into Lara. The Lara that Vikander has to inhabit has a more well-defined character – she’s damaged, she’s grieving her father while trying to live up to his memory – and I’m not sure if Vikander is a dynamic or charismatic enough performer to do what Jolie did. She’s definitely not the star that Jolie was, and that star power is half the battle won.
So while this new film is not going to reach the heights of the original – it can’t, the world has changed, the way we consume both films and video games has changed – there’s still hope. Not Angelina Jolie in a padded bra doing bungee ballet hope or Angelina Jolie fighting with kendo sticks hope, but definitely more than triangle boob Lara Croft hope.
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