Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

D: Simon West
S: Angelina Jolie, Jon Voight

Considering how long it has been touted and the level of publicity it has managed to generate, it is surprising that this adaptation of the popular computer game series is ultimately a cheap-looking, slapdash effort which seems like it was conceived and put together in a few minutes by a second-rate outfit on a shoestring budget. With some of the grimiest photography in a major motion picture in years, composed mostly of blurry close-ups of uninteresting performances against sets which can't be seen, this is the kind of movie which belongs on a video shop shelf, not the big screen. If it hadn't starred Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Gone in 60 Seconds) (and dad Jon Voight, briefly), it probably would have gone there straight away.

The Tomb Raider games do, after a fashion, owe part of their evolution to the cheap and cheerful studio quickies of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s where some heroic explorer found themselves pitted against impossible odds in some remote part of the world (suggested by matte drawings or cardboard sets filled with potted plants populated by extras in blackface). Essentially though, the memories of the makers probably go no further back than Hollywood's rejuvenation of the genre in Raiders of the Lost Ark, which spawned video games as far back as Pitfall! in the early 1980s. It would be nice to think that there is some integrity to this film's lack of depth as some sort of homage to the original strain of brainless escapism, but it is just too tedious for that. At least those old movies usually paced themselves so that their few big moments of action stood out and the rest was fast and painless. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is an enormously repetitive series of set pieces in between which nothing happens and during which most of what happens is a lot less interesting than it promises to be.

The plot has Lara Croft, heiress and adventurer, doing battle with miscellaneous bad guys in search of an ancient artifact which could destroy the world if it falls into the wrong hands. Fair enough. No great problems there. Peppered throughout the exposition are several action scenes, including one staged on bungee cords and a bit of business involving a motorbike which isn't bad. Okay. You have to find unusual ways to stage things and throw something in to the summer palette that hasn't been seen before, right?

Cast in the all-important lead role is Angelina Jolie, supporting the character's trademark wardrobe and with sufficiently large breasts to amuse those for whom this aspect of her design holds amusement. To be fair to her, Jolie is not bad. She certainly looks the part, and carries herself with enough grace and toughness to make the character work. Unfortunately that is all she has to do, because once she is established, Lara doesn't develop. Of course not. The goal in the games is always survival, not self-realisation. Any character issues are incidental to the non-stop roller-coaster ride.

The problem is the quality of that roller-coaster ride. Not all entertainments are equal, and as even Raiders of the Lost Ark demonstrated, it takes skill and craftsmanship to really push the audience's buttons. Director Simon West (The General's Daughter, Con-Air) is no Steven Spielberg, and the action in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is usually staged, framed, and photographed in the least interesting manner possible. There is rarely any sense of scale or danger, the pace is reckless from the get-go, there is no real build-up or variety in any of the scenes, and most of them seem to have been shot in close-up for no good reason other than to disguise the fact that the background lighting is unflattering in the extreme. The exotic locales are not used for anything more than changing the setting, and even then they seem to have been shot with no regard for their visual beauty. There is all too much mistiness in the background at all times, and with computer-generated beasties running amok in some of them, they hold even less attraction than is usual in the genre. As for the action itself, there is a lot of rapid-fire sound and image, plenty of rock tunes to fill out a tie-in soundtrack and there are enough moments where Jolie stands, poses, and pouts to make it look like it has a personality, but none of the scenes of confrontation are actually exciting in themselves. The villains are limp and anonymous, the sidekicks are sniggering comic relief at the best of times, and no one on screen has an ounce of presence other than Jolie herself (poor Voight has little more than a cameo).

The audience is never really taken in and taken along on that much anticipated roller coaster. You tend to feel distant from the events on screen. This is ironic given that it is precisely the opposite response to that expected from videogames. Granted movies are not videogames and they are more passive than interactive. But good movies can evoke a level of participation which comes with empathy and caring for the characters which makes sitting through the scenes of spectacle more than just brain-dead couch-potato drooling. There is spectacle in this film, sure, but it is not really all that spectacular. It is really just a lot of repetitive scenes of Lara jumping about and shooting miscellaneous human and other-worldly opponents with nary a moment to take a breath and give us a chance to find her (or anyone else) enough of a human being to empathise with. It was fun to watch Indiana Jones careening along a literal roller-coaster in Temple of Doom as much because we knew and loved him enough for the in-joke to be funny. That we may know Lara Croft as a videogame character does not make her enough of a personality to hold the rest of this bland merry-go-round together just because she's there.

Undemanding adolescents might get something from this film, but even they will have seen better fare in recent years (even The Mummy Returns does this kind of thing with more flair). Fans of the game will probably be disappointed, but after Super Mario Bros. there probably is not a whole lot further game adaptations can sink, and this film is not quite that bad. Academics hoping to find something interesting to talk about in the focus on a female adventurer really need to get out more, or at least to see better movies than this one to write about. Casual viewers will simply wonder what all the fuss was about, because there's certainly nothing here to pique your curiosity as to the further adventures of Ms. Croft on film or the previous ones on computer. You're probably going to go and see it anyway of course, but don't say you weren't warned. If you'll take my advice you'll at least not pay evening rates to see it. Stay home and demand the DVD release of Raiders instead.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.