The release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider has inspired film pundits to reset the entire grim history of the video-game-as-movie genre. Previous adaptations have provided textbook examples of suckitude, we’ve been reminded—Super Mario Bros., Wing Commander, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter. Would Tomb Raider finally break this loathsome trend, critics pondered rhetorically.
Efforts to contextualize Tomb Raider have been admirable. They have also generally been missing the point. At some time, someone will make a video game-based film that isn’t so wretched you want to cut off your own arm to have something with which to beat yourself into blissful unconsciousness—and P.S., Tomb Raider ain’t it. But the uglier side of an already butt-ugly story is the reason such adaptations are concocted in the first place. It involves one of the most depressing developments in the ever-more-cynical world of 21st century Hollywood filmmaking, a concept that strikes terror into the heart of anyone who really loves movies. That concept is called “synergy.”
Let’s be blunt: Movies like Tomb Raider exist because they’re easy to sell. The Tomb Raider brand name hits the “jump” button of that prime movie-going demographic, adolescent and adolescent-at-heart males. It’s the same principle at work behind sequels, only there’s no need to waste time and effort creating and selling a popular first film to cash in on. One could easily enough hate Tomb Raider because it’s loud, stupid and incoherent—fine enough reasons, every one. Better still to hate it for being yet another soul-deadening exercise in crass commerce, a movie that practically sneers at you contemptuously for being foolish enough to buy what it’s selling—crap in a recognizable wrapper.
And worse yet, it’s not even competently executed crap. Tomb Raider begins with the seemingly ingenious casting of pouty ball o’ fire Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, heiress and globe-trotting dilettante adventurer. Lacking workaday concerns, our gal Lara spends her copious free time working out against killer robots in her personal gymnasium, or working out her grief over the death 15 years earlier of her beloved father. Some sort of universe-threatening craziness is about to unfold, but Tomb Raider is really about far more pressing questions: Doesn’t Jolie pack a killer ’tude along with her double handguns? And doesn’t she look fetching in those skintight outfits, with that meticulously-placed strand of hair hanging into her sultry eyes? And doesn’t simply asking those questions put us halfway to satisfying the aforementioned adolescent male viewers?
Since little additional effort is required to make Tomb Raider sellable—like, say, a script—no one bothered with any. Instead, it tries to coast by on good will cribbed from a dozen different sources. Most obviously, it works overtime to regurgitate a distaff spin on Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Lara as its Indianne Jones. Megalomaniacal villain (Iain Glen)? Check. Mercenary rival archaeologist (Daniel Craig)? Check. Infinitely powerful ancient artifact? Check. Cambodia-rific exotic locations? You betcha.
Thrills and personality? Er, no. Indiana Jones was created as an actual character, complete with quirks, fears and vulnerability—when he’s in danger, it actually seems dangerous. Lara Croft, on the other hand, was created as prelude to an action figure. No Tomb Raider predicament is so dire that Lara can’t face it with a practiced smirk and a perpetually arched eyebrow. Oh sure, she has unresolved Daddy issues, but they’re never so emotionally wrenching that she won’t be ready to smirk again in a few seconds.
Admittedly, these are the gripes that set action film enthusiasts to railing against egghead critic types. “Character?” they scoff. “Personality? Who cares when the action is awesome?” But director Simon West can’t even paste together a decent set piece to provide visceral satisfaction. Critics often dismiss rapid-fire action fare by comparing it to video games, which often proves to be a ridiculously inappropriate comparison—in a video game, you can generally tell at any given moment just what the hell is going on. No such luck in Tomb Raider, in which the editing of the fight sequences whips the images into a fine paste and smears them across the screen like Jackson Pollock on amphetamines. Lots of people do a lot of violent things very quickly in Tomb Raider, but that’s not the same as excitement. When it’s impossible to tell where anything is in relation to anything else, that’s just a big fat mess.
Apologists will likely offer up the “exuberant vacuity” argument on Tomb Raider’s behalf—that it may be garbage, but it’s unpretentious garbage, and wants to do nothing more than leave its audience “entertained.” Indeed, director West occasionally shows flashes of self-awareness, as with the lingering, so-gratuitous-it’s-funny scene of Lara in the shower, and a later scene that teases with the possibility that we’ll see Lara in the shower yet again.
But I think it’s giving the makers of Tomb Raider too much benefit of the doubt to assume they care at all about entertaining anyone. Paramount has in all likelihood already made a mint from merchandising tie-ins, soundtrack rights, Pepsi product placements and overseas distribution deals. No one needs to worry about entertaining the audience, since the movie doesn’t have to be any good for people to show up. Synergy is popular because it’s good business, and because it allows people who make movies to be lazy about making them.
Plenty of summer movies can be big, dumb and lovable. Tomb Raider is big, dumb and mean, a schoolyard bully of a picture that turns you upside down to shake your lunch money out of your pockets. And it won’t stop until that prime movie-going demographic starts staying home and telling the synergy-sellers, “Game over.”
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (PG-13) H Directed by Simon West. Starring Angelina Jolie and Jon Voight.