Overthinking a Tomb Raider

Thursday, March 29, 2018 :: Tagged under: culture videogames. ⏰ 4 minutes.

The song for this post is Silver Surfer for the NES soundtrack, by Tim Follin.

I saw the Tomb Raider movie. I'm probably overestimating exactly how hard it is to put a good movie together, but it felt like a missed opportunity.


I enjoyed the series reboot of the games in 2013: while I don't play new games very often, I got a free copy of the game with another purchase I'd made. For AAA schlock (see "correct games" from this essay), it was a lot of fun! My brother was a fan of the original PlayStation games, but I found them largely unplayable (the tank controls, having bad platforming and combat); you know I can't stand a game if I find its speedruns boring. The most succinct way to articulate why I loved the rebooted games was that they cashed the checks the Tomb Raider series has been writing since its inception: beautiful, mysterious tombs and a hell of a fun time raiding them.

Additionally, they took one of the most iconic characters in video games and improved everything about her too. Lara from the aughts was a weird mix of male gaze and unaware adventure trope campiness. "You don't shoot with pistols in each hand!" I'd yell with food flying out my mouth. "You especially can't do it while jumping a greater distance than your height, laterally while flipping, several times in a row!" New Lara at least looks like a human, holds a single pistol with two hands, and jumps like an extremely athletic person instead of Spider-Man.

Not to say she's free from issues: an executive producer for the 2013 reboot got into hot water by saying "When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character [...] They're more like 'I want to protect her,'" and I'd argue that shows. They did better in Rise of the Tomb Raider from 2015, but it did feel like the 2013 had more of a "saving her" vibe than "you are her."

Still, they're fun games. I had hopes for the movie because one thing the games do exceptionally well is chase sequences. I mean, look at this:

I imagine a building constructed just like that exploding in just that way is about as impractical as Black Mesa is laid out to be a research facility, but I figured if the movie was just a ton of that, I'd watch the hell out of it.


So where did the movie go wrong? Well, where it honored the games was bad, and everywhere it deviated was bad:

The "protect Lara" impulse was quite strong. She has a line where her dad was saying "[the man who never gives up] died years ago" and she says, defiantly "well I'm still his daughter!" and runs off. Like… if you have the main character who carries the series having a moment to define herself, please don't define her as a daughter of someone nobody cares about.

I'll broaden the statement that everything concerning her dad was fluffy and unnecessary. Nobody cares or has ever cared about Lara Croft on the basis of whatever "being a Croft" means. Her growth as a character in the newer games is stronger precisely because she does it entirely on her own.

The games knew where to apply thick layers of schlock and where not to. The movie has this weird thematic issue with whether or not magic behind the tomb they're raiding is real; the games just said "fuck it, we're owning it, magic is a thing because it makes the game more fun." The movies made weaker choices. Ditto Matthias (the villain) who was the wrong amount of ham.

The callbacks to the game were not well-selected or well-executed. Lara holding two pistols as the final shot is a silly callback to promo materials of the bad old days; Croft Manor as a setting could have been made to please fans a whole lot more with an action or training sequence there (or locking a butler in a meat freezer). If a studio can greenlight Shia LeBeouf swinging from vines with the help of monkeys in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, surely you could have had a campy sequence in there with her fighting some silly wildlife (both eras of the games has her fighting bears, tigers, spiders, and once, a T-Rex).

Independent of the source material, the writing was weak, and the structure tried cramming in a whole lot of irrelevant material. The 2013 game started with her island shipwreck with the occasional flashback, which would've worked fine here. They have odd thematic beats, like the repeated insistence that she's Totally Smart but then you have her delegate all the "numbers business" to an estranged, clearly-evil aunt.

On that note, the secondary characters were wasted. The actors did pretty well with what they were given, but they weren't given much. Lara's boxing friends, the street race crews, the snooty desk clerk, the longing foodservice worker… all could have split Dad Croft's or Matthias' lines and it would have been a better movie. The wealth manager's speaking affect was one of the most ticklish bits of acting I've seen in years.

Next time: more tombs, more raiding, more traps, more acrobatics, more a' splosions, more Lara; less "Croft", less half-committed hammy choices, less telling-not-showing, less winks at aughts-Lara.

I believe it can be done!

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