Tomb Raider: another failed video game movie

Tomb Raider should have been a great film. I wanted to watch it because I like films with bows and arrows in them, and Tomb Raider has an arrow in the logo.

I fell asleep watching Tomb Raider, which (not for the first time) indicates I probably wasn’t enjoying it. I nodded off not long after Lara Croft set sail from a generic Asian port, having spent way too long watching her be a bike messenger round London. After that, I remember patches of the film up until the big fight scenes near the end, including the bit with most of the archery.

Video game movies have never been particularly good. Bob Hoskins once cited Super Mario Bros as “a fuckin’ nightmare“. Assassin’s Creed was boring and made even less sense than the games on which it was based. Prince of Persia was almost decent, but still entirely forgettable (and I loved the source material, which probably introduces some positive bias to my opinion). The less said about any of the films made by Uwe Boll the better, apart from to mention that he once challenged his critics to boxing matches, presumably because punching them in the face was less punishing than making them sit through Alone In The Dark or BloodRayne. The high point of gaming-related cinema is probably still Mortal Kombat, which sets a ludicrously low bar.

Seriously, how is this still the kream of the krop?

To be fair, the old Tomb Raider films starring Angelina Jolie showed promise. The first one was sort of fun. The second film was dire.

Tomb Raider—the game—is at heart about a woman who goes on adventures. In the early games, it was largely just Lara Croft on her own solving puzzles, murdering the occasional local fauna, and falling off ledges. In the modern series, which the new film is based on, she’s fighting for survival both against nature and a veritable army of brainwashed goons with high calibre weaponry. There are other characters, but the games work best when it’s just Lara versus the world.

Sadly, there are other characters in the film (including, for some reason, Lara’s alive and well father), and none of them are particularly interesting or different to the same archetypes we see done better in countless other movies. Worse yet, having these characters removes much of the self-sufficiency that we associate with Lara Croft, and any power fantasy we took from the game. I don’t want to watch some dude help Lara. I want to be Lara when she helps herself.

As exciting as watching someone else solve a puzzle in a game.

In the film, we watch Lara solve puzzles, jump over ledges, and get into gun and arrow fights. Either these are things we’ve seen a hundred times before in other, better films, or they are things that we would want to control ourselves. Watching Lara open a locked door is not intrinsically interesting, because we’re watching her figure out a puzzle that we would have to solve ourselves if only we were playing the game.

The boundaries between games and films have been increasingly blurry ever since the advent of laserdiscs and CD-ROMs brought about the dreaded term “Interactive Movie”. But games and films are still 2 distinct media, no matter what the likes of the Uncharted franchise would have us believe.

The story in a game must serve the mechanics, must fit the actions of the player character. When it does not, we have narratively dissonant moments such as when, in the 2013 Tomb Raider game, Lara mourns the first time she is forced to kill a human, but 20 minutes later she mows down her attackers without complaint.

Lara Croft, archaeologist.

Conversely, there are no gameplay mechanics in a movie. There is no interactivity. A film lives and dies by the choices of the director. They can invoke mystery but must solve that mystery or leave it unsolved without the viewer’s input. This means that if we must watch Lara solve a door puzzle, it needs to be set up to be interesting to the viewer. Tomb Raider doesn’t bother.

Sadly, video game movies are about nothing more than brand recognition. If a game is successful, the fans will flock to the cinema, so there is no need to budget for good writing or direction. They end up being little more than B-movies; cheap simulacra of the originals. Tomb Raider is no different; the special effects look no better than those that are digitally created in the game, and as a story the game fares far better.