From the Archive – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Raider

 

“Who is Lara Croft?” (And yes, this is the best of the film’s dire taglines)

Directed by Simon West
Starring Angelina Jolie

Lady Lara Croft (Jolie) is an orphaned, aristocratic shut-in with a tough ‘tude and serious daddy issues, who lives in a near-deserted mansion with faithful family servant Hilary (Christopher Barrie) and techie hanger-on Bryce (Noah Taylor). Not having to work for a living, she whiles away the days as a tomb raider; a mercenary specialising in the plundering of ancient artefacts from sites of archaeological significance; like Indiana Jones without the reverence.

Then one night, she finds a clock concealed by her late father (John Voight, Jolie’s real life dad), which itself hides an ancient device, which is used to unlock the resting places of the two halves of the Triangle of Light, an artefact of vast cosmic power forged by an ancient race from metal taken form a fallen meteor, broken in two after the abuse of its power almost destroyed the world, and now sought by The Illuminati, the secret society’s secret society, although in this film played by the Freemasons. The Triangle allows its possessor to travel through time, and thus to – dare I say it – rule the world, but it can only be restored if the Key is used to unlock two separate vaults at two precisely defined points in an astrological conjunction of all nine planets which occurs every five millennia.

The Key is promptly stolen by a goon-squad sent by Illuminati chief bruiser Max Powell (an evilly oily Iain Glen). A message left by her father guides Lara to intercept Powell, and rival tomb raider Alex (an American played by Brit actor Daniel Craig), as they try to claim the first piece of the Triangle from a Cambodian temple. She proves her superiority by solving a part of the puzzle Alex missed, then snags the Triangle half, although the Illuminati retain the Key.

Making a deal with Powell to join forces in exchange for the restoration of her long-lost father, Lara heads off to the Siberian meteor crater where it all began, with Bryce in tow for no reason whatsoever. She retrieves the second piece from a giant solar system model with optional deadly crushing features, which seems to have been borrowed from The Dark Crystal. Powell betrays his Illuminati masters – no enlightened tyranny for our Maxie – but finds he can’t join the two pieces.

To force Lara to reveal the Triangle’s secret, Powell kills Alex. She retrieves a third piece form inside the Key, but beats Powell to the prize. Visiting her father before his death, she is told that she can’t save him, because it would be wrong to meddle with the passage of history. She thus returns to her own time, meddles with time anyway to save Alex, smashes the Triangle to smithereens and has a fight with Powell who – quelle surprise – is the one who killed her father, a traitor to the Illuminati. Then she skates out of the collapsing ice cave, being pulled by sled dogs like some refugee from a tampon commercial, comes to terms with her father’s death and goes back to her life of wacky adventure and franchises.

What’s wrong with it?

Tomb Raider is a collection of insipid action set pieces, bound together by a weak plot, linked by fairly unenlightening exposition and populated by dull characters. Lara has no real interaction with anyone that goes deeper than casual badinage, and shows almost no humanity, even in confronting her dead father. The claim that to have allowed her to show emotion and have feelings would have weakened a strong female character is undercut by the fact that throughout the film she is purely her father’s instrument. She solves – and decides – nothing for herself, simply following her father’s guidance and instructions.

Alex, the rival-cum-love interest, is portrayed as being nowhere near Lara’s equal, making their three minutes of verbal ‘sparring’ even more tedious than it would be otherwise. She is also – in keeping with the general refusal to allow Lara to display human weakness – completely immune to his charms, making her willingness to reveal the secret of the Pyramid to save him – yet not her father – utterly unfathomable.

The set-pieces are clunky and over-orchestrated, almost leisurely affairs lacking the flow which audience have come to expect in the post-Matrix era. Moreover, they do no fit smoothly into the film’s narrative flow, but rather are included purely for their own sake. This goes double for the wire-work scene, where Lara exercises suspended from bungie ropes, purely so that when the goon-squad bust in – naturally making no attempt at stealth – she can battle them wuxia style, because that’s cool, right?

The accents are crazed, with Jolie’s plummy tones fair but inconsistent, and her father’s deeply dodgy. The casting of the Brit as Alex adds a kind of perverse symmetry to the proceedings. The villain of the piece meanwhile trades slimy Englishness for true menace, apparently too bored to make much effort in establishing his scumbag credentials.

Also, the ‘visit interesting places and smash them to smithereens’ motif is deeply offensive to the archaeologist in me.

What’s right with it?

Well, no evening with the Freemasons and quinmillennial, wacky world-ending fun is ever completely wasted, although for the same money you could instead see The Mummy Returns, which at least has some likeable characters.

Some of the supporting players are actually pretty decent, although given little to do. Chris Barrie, of Red Dwarf fame, is especially good as the long-suffering butler, striving to turn the plummy-voiced hellion into a lady, although one can’t help feeling that the character should have been a little older, specifically have been old enough to realistically have been Lord Croft’s butler before his demise.

How bad is it really?

Tomb Raider is pretty  much hokum; an undemanding adventure yarn which asks little of its audience, but delivers not much in return. The greatest failing of most movies based on computer games is that they end up feeling like a game where you have no control than like a proper movie – or at least of the ones that aren’t simply so terrible that nothing about them could ever be considered as good, Super Mario Bros, I’m looking in your direction – and this is one trap the Tomb Raider fails to evade.

It’s not truly dire, in the manner of some would-be Indiana Joneses, but it’s really not very good at all.

Best bit?

When the goon-squad bursts into the mansion, Hilary rushes to defend it with a shotgun and a bullet-proof vest strapped on over his Noel Coward dressing gown. It’s kind of charming.

What’s up with…?

  • Lara taking her techie sidekick into the ‘dead zone’ around the meteor crater, an area in which no machines work?
  • The hiding of the final Triangle piece being in the clock, which she has to break open by throwing it into one of the time storms around the final chamber. While I’ve complained that Lara never works anything else out for herself, it might have been nice to see at least some sign of the clue that lets her get this one.
  • The race up the pyramid to get the finished Triangle? Is this it? The fate of the world, the final battle of good and evil, comes down to American Gladiators? No trials? No tests of wisdom? Don’t they even have to work out what Uncle might like for his birthday? She doesn’t even have to fight the bad guy for this one; just beat him in a straight sprint.
    Mind you, the fact she won is a testament to her sports bra.

Ratings

Production values – So-so. Decent SFX is squandered on fairly mediocre direction, static choreography and over-excited editing. Plus anyone who feels Angelina Jolie’s breasts need to be enlarged plainly has their priorities wonky. 12

Dialogue and performances – Weak, at best. Limp badinage, convoluted exposition and lame faux attitude, all delivered in a collection of dodgy accents by performers who all seem to be phoning this one in. Jolie has at times shown signs of some serious acting chops, but her portrait of Croft consists solely of pouting, speaking with an accent and assaying the occasional feral snarl to show she’s tough and dangerous. 17

Plot and execution – The plot could cheerfully form the basis of a forty-five minute Outer Limits episode, but barely makes the stretch to movie length. The film is essentially a series of action scenes, with little overall flow, and the direction is somewhat lacklustre. 16

Randomness – Aside from Lord Croft’s rather bizarre series of cryptic messages from beyond the grave, and the random Cambodian/Inuit girl who pops up every now and then with flowers and wisdom, the film basically sticks to it’s fairly pedestrian mystery-cult guns. Oh, and the big-ass training robot. And the dog-skating; what was up with that? And the wire-work scene. 15

Waste of potential – Two words for you: Indiana Jones. Tomb Raider could have been a much better film if it had simply taken the plunge and divorced itself a little further from its computer game origins to have an actual narrative and a little humanity. It probably wouldn’t have been great, but it probably could have been good. 12

Overall 72%

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