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Non-Review Review: Tomb Raider (2018)

Tomb Raider is an excavation of a video game classic.

Tomb Raider gets a lot right in terms of pitching itself as an action-driven blockbuster, certainly enough to elevate it above recent computer-screen-to-cinema-screen efforts like Assassin’s Creed or Warcraft. Tomb Raider has a solid action director in Roar Uthaug and a charismatic lead in Alicia Vikander, while understanding that the premise of the movie rests within its title. Tomb Raider is a movie about raiding tombs, and even the somewhat strained opening act is very striving towards that objective.

“Okay, where’s this tomb I need to raid?”

At the same time, Tomb Raider suffers from the problem that haunts so many video game adaptations, which is a complete misunderstanding of the mechanics and appeal of the medium. The appeal of video games is one of immersion. It is one of actually doing something (almost) firsthand; solving puzzles, making decisions, timing your reflexes just right. These are aspects of gaming that are very difficult to emulate on the big screen, but it seems like the best video game movies understand that the possible appeal of video games is in watching that doing.

Instead, like Assassin’s Creed or Warcraft before it, Tomb Raider makes the mistake of assuming that the audience’s investment in video game world-building extends beyond their direct engagement with it. Tomb Raider too often feels like a video game movie that believes the appeal of playing video games is to watch the in-game cut scenes.

“No, but seriously… tomb?”

This issue is obvious from the introductory scenes. Classic action movies used to begin with action set pieces introducing the lead character in a dynamic set piece, allowing the audience to form an attachment to these characters by watching them in motion; think of the cold opens at the start of films like Goldfinger or Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was even true of more character-driven action films, like Cliffhanger, which introduced audiences to characters by showing them in action and in their natural environment.

Tomb Raider awkwardly opens with a chunk of narrative exposition provided in the smooth tones of Dominic West in character as Lord Richard Croft. The opening sequence of Tomb Raider is dedicated to articulating the appeal of the macguffin that will drive the plot of the film, the tomb that will need to be raided. This feels like a mistake on a number of levels, a fundamental misunderstanding of what draws audiences into stories.

Going East for West.

Most obviously, plot devices are not narratives of themselves, but objects that serve to motivate or drive characters; so characters are more important. More than that, this exposition is repeated ad nauseam over the course of the rest of the film. Indeed, a lot of the dialogue is repeated almost verbatim in a sequence forty minutes into the film, with Lara setting off to find the tomb in question. From a narrative standpoint, the exposition might work better there, once Lara’s character arc has been established. The tomb is just a detail on her mission.

Tomb Raider is filled with lots of awkward nods and shoehorned mythology, the script repeatedly hinting at ideas like “genocide” and “secret organisations.” These are nice trappings for an archeological adventure, but they are not a point in and of themselves. Tomb Raider invests far too much energy in these abstract stakes and this elaborate mythology for a story based on a video game about the elaborate thrills of running and jumping and puzzle-solving.

A Corfty One, Indeed.

Tomb Raider devotes an inordinate amount of time to concepts like the mythical “Queen Himiko” and the villainous organisation “Trinity” without actually developing or exploring them. Tomb Raider instead gestures repeatedly towards these constructs, as if to assert that they serve an important function just by existing within the narrative. As a point of comparison, Raiders of the Lost Ark spends considerably less time on its core concepts like “Ark of the Covenant” and “Nazis”, understanding that they are plot functions more than plot-drivers.

To be fair, this fixation on exposition within Tomb Raider feels like the culmination of a number of Hollywood trends. It obviously reflects the industry’s current fascination with “worldbuilding”, in the idea that every story should devote itself to establishing or developing a virtual space for the audience to inhabit, preferably one that can support sequels and spin-offs. This explains why so many blockbusters are introduced with what feel like video-game cut scenes, and devote so much attention to exposition. Even La La Land gently mocked the trend.

Winging it.

There are certainly moments where Tomb Raider seems to have been designed by an algorithm intended to produce a blockbuster, with a number of cynical narrative choices. Most obviously, the movie spends considerable time in its opening act establishing the Lara as somebody under considerable economic pressure despite her wealthy upper class background. (She is working as a courier to support her gym membership.) It feels like a somewhat contrived set-up, designed to avoid dealing with some of the class issues inherent in a globe-trotting heiress archeologist.

However, this fixation on exposition also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the appeal of videogames. Some video games skilfully immerse players in virtual worlds, relaying information in a relatively passive manner for the audience to consume; these games tend to be smaller and quirkier indie titles, rather than those games with brand recognition capable of launching a massive blockbuster movie franchise. These blockbuster games offer a vicarious thrill, of allowing players to experience action and movement first-hand.

Floating some new ideas.

This perhaps explains why video games are so difficult to translate to the big screen. The closest that cinema comes to emulating the sensation and appeal of video games is in creating a visceral and immersive experience, rather than in adhering to established mythos or character. The best Tomb Raider movie may be Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, depending on what part of the games you love most. The best Grand Theft Auto movie may be Pulp Fiction. The best Super Mario movie may be The Edge of Tomorrow.

Tomb Raider mistakes fidelity of exposition to fidelity of sensation. It seems to believe that the process of adapting a video game for the big screen amounts to replaying cut scenes with great actors. Indeed, there is one very telling moment in the film where Lara discovers a camcorder with a video of exposition from her father. The camera is helpfully labelled “play me”, a reminder of how different the experience of “playing” a video game and “playing” a video.

“Your mission, should you… eh… sorry, wrong franchise.”

This is a shame, because there are points where Tomb Raider comes close to working. Despite the copious (and never-ending) amounts of exposition in the script, Roar Uthaug understands that the appeal of Tomb Raider is in movement; after all, this is an adaptation of an action-adventure puzzle-solver rather than a more sedate role-playing game. There are a number of impressive action sequences, but they are spaced too far apart within the narrative. So much time is spent on exposition, it takes almost an hour and a half to reach the eponymous tomb.

The amount of time spent on exposition means that the more faithful aspects of the film’s aesthetic are down-played. Tomb Raider is about running and jumping, but also about applying logic. The source material arguably works best when it applies its action sensibility to problem-solving. The feature film embraces the run-and-jump aesthetic of the game, with Vikander almost spending most of the movie off the ground.

Plane sailing.

However, the plot-driving and world-building exposition leaves little room for solving puzzles or riddles. Although Lara is repeatedly confronted with challenges and death traps, the film very seldom allows for time to work out the internal logic of these elaborate mechanisms. Again, the obvious point of comparison is the attention that the Indiana Jones movies pay to problem-solving; while never the primary focus of the film, the movies tend to allow the audience to understand how the protagonist solves these riddles. Tomb Raider glosses over this aspect of tomb raiding.

To be fair, Tomb Raider does benefit from a strong central performance by Alicia Vikander. Vikander is a game protagonist in more ways than one, offering a charismatic and roguish lead character. Lara is wry and funny, resourceful and determined. There is something relatable in her exhaustion and frustration when confronted with a conga-line of set-pieces in the middle of the film. Having to deal with the latest hurdle in a long series, she almost sighs, “Great.” Vikander is playful, and strikes a tone that the rest of the movie would do well to emulate.

“C’mon. Somebody has to have seen a tomb around here somewhere.”

Tomb Raider is not a disaster, but it is also not a revelation either. It is a clumsy action adventure film that feels undermined by a complete misunderstanding of the appeal of its source material, and from difficulty in translating that source material from one medium to another.

4 Responses

  1. Where do you rank this compared with Angelina Jolie’s two movies? I enjoyed both of those, but in a “not a disaster but not a revelation” kind of way similar to what you’re describing here.

    I’m not a gamer, but I actually have often enjoyed watching the “movie” version of video games (either in the form of watching friends play or seeing the whole thing when it’s uploaded to YouTube). So this movie being a lot like watching in-game cut scenes might not be the turn-off for me that it is for gamers.

    • It’s better, but less “fun.” Not that the Jolie movies were particularly “fun”, but there’s a dourness to the reboot. It takes its premise seriously, which is good. But also too seriously at times. I don’t need world-building, I want tomb raiding!

  2. Tomb Raider gets a lot right in terms of pitching itself as an action-driven blockbuster, a good one time watch.

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