Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
March 2018

Tomb Raider

Level up

On Tomb Raider's passable adventures and meaningless puzzles, and the half-measures of video-game adaptation

Tomb Raider
Warner Bros.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Screenplay: Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, based on the video-game series created by Core Design
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi and Nick Frost
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 58 minutes / 2.39:1
March 16, 2018
(out of four)

There you are, thinking that, at the very least, video-game adaptation Tomb Raider was not behaving like a video-game, but simply like a straightforward adventure movie. And then, right as that thought crosses your mind, along comes a scene in which all the characters get trapped in a subterranean chamber where the floor is disappearing piece by piece like a revolving trap door and the only way to save everyone is to figure out which cheap piece of fluorescent plastic magic crystal to stick into the wall to make it stop and unlock the hidden passage.

I mean.

Look, the other scenes with video-game-like conventions - working your way around booby traps, figuring out a puzzle to open up the tomb in the first place - are more permissible. The Indiana Jones movies pull those same tricks. But the multicolored glowing plastic life-savers are such an obvious tell, the whole scene instantly reminds you of what you're watching.

And the thing is, it's so pointless. Not just the glowing plastic paperweights, but the existence of the scene in general - structurally, narratively. It's applied as an arbitrary death mechanism for the supporting cast, getting rid of a few expendables - sorry, our heroine couldn't get those crystals figured out in time to save everyone - as if to leave fewer moving parts in the ensuing climactic scenes. But more conspicuously, it plays as a needless step along the way to where we were always going to end up regardless - as if fulfilling some unspoken obligation to go from this room to this room to that room just for the sake of doing so. How did anyone think watching someone stick a bunch of glowing orbs into a socket until she happens to find the right one would be dramatically interesting, or worth any emotional investment?

Keep in mind, by this point in the movie, we're ostensibly at our final destination already. The mission has been to open up a specific tomb. Said mission has been accomplished. We're in. Only then we have to be subjected to a few arbitrary complications of extremely minimal importance. The opening of the tomb - supposedly belonging to the mythological Queen Yamatai - has monopolized the minds and lives of most of the film's characters, in particular the two wily, globetrotting archaeological rivals, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and Richard Croft (Dominic West), both long since written off for dead by modern civilization. This pursuit has been years and years in the making, its grueling attempts and failures having become a sort of Sisyphean curse. Vogel has had men on-site - on this hidden jungle island somewhere in the South Pacific - for who knows how many years. He wants to leave but he can't. Per his mysterious employer, he's not allowed to leave until he's done what has been asked of him. His is a miserable existence. Seeing Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) - who arrived on the island searching for her long-lost father by following clues he left behind in a secret vault - unlock the tomb for him is, or should be, a moment of triumph. Or at least a catalyst for untold nightmares to come.

Instead, what greets him and the rest of the crew are a couple of mundane little puzzles en route to the queen's body. It seems like it might be modeled after the challenges en route to the Grail in the final section of Last Crusade, but if so (or, I guess, even if not), screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons seem to have deeply missed the point. The tests and riddles in Last Crusade are actual trials of character, courage, will, faith, intellect; they contain meaning and consequence in equal measure. What Tomb Raider discovers about itself in the late stages is that it has saddled itself with a narrative journey that holds no intrinsic significance at all.

Director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) does very little to give shape to the narrative and dramatic implications of his adventure tale. He has a strange inability to capitalize on the implications of what his characters have been through, or what they discover, or what they survive, or what they unleash. There is little weight to Vogel's weariness of his own daily existence, nor any sense of delirium when he finally gets what he's been after for so long. There's no particularly acute shock, or euphoria, to Lara discovering her presumed-dead father is still alive. There's not much of any effect to the dire cosmic implications of opening this tomb in the first place. There's plenty of exposition without much interrogation.

The film's strengths are in character and performance; Vikander makes a credible lead largely on the strength of her physical performance. More an athlete-adventurer than Angelina Jolie's pinup version, Vikander's Croft is at her best when the plot is propelling her into action, and somewhat less effective in moments when she turns on a sort of cock-eyed, self-aware, winking star charm that this incarnation of the character seems more at home without. There's a genuine warmth to the relationship between Lara and her father, even if the notes their scenes hit are ultimately perfunctory and shallow. And Vogel makes for a decent villain if only because it's Walton Goggins playing him. It's a shame, for the entire cast but Vikander in particular, how often they're badly, blurrily composited against green-screen backgrounds. The violence of the ocean and the gravity of the steep cliffs and rocky hillsides on the island never really have a chance to provide much physical force.

Despite its many hiccups, the film does a much better job of just developing a story, and being a movie (magic crystals notwithstanding), than do most video-game adaptations. So in a modest way, this is something of a step forward. But clearly this particular obstacle of adaptation remains. It seems video-game movies should either go whole-hog and transform their gaming conventions into a new, specific brand of cinematic storytelling, or basically ignore the video-game roots altogether and just pilfer the source material for the ideas that might work on screen in a more traditional way. Instead, most of these movies are either too intent on exposing their video-game roots or not intent enough. Like many of its predecessors, Tomb Raider is stuck somewhere in between.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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