Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Tomb Raider - Movie Review

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Tomb Raider recently came out on Blue Ray, and I watched it with my wife. I thought I'd share my two cents with you. Short version: Watchable. Long version: There are some really interesting conclusions to draw from this in two regards. One is basics of screenwriting and the second is the ever-present problem of adapting a video game to film. I guess this is the best video game adaption movie so far, but that's not been a high bar to clear yet. 
Let me begin with the screen writing stuff. Tomb Raider makes some basic mistakes in its structure that hinder it becoming a good movie, instead hobbling it and leaving it in the wide area of mediocre and forgettable action flicks. To adress these, let me give you a short story recap. Here be spoilers.
Lara Croft is a young adult riding a bike as a courier in London to finance kickboxing lessons. She is technically heir to a giant corporate empire complete with a luxurious manor, but to accept said heritage she'd need to sign a paper accepting her father's death. The latter has been missing since 2009 (the movie is set in 2018), but she just can't let him go. When she finally (out of financial desperation) gets over herself, she unlocks a secret message leading her on his trail to some mystical island where according to legend an old goddess of death is entombed. An evil corporation called "Trinity" is after it. So Lara takes on the trail, finds the son of the guy who brought her father there in Hongkong, hires him and follows up. They get captured by Trinity on the island, escape, Lara reunites with her father (who's gone full Robinson Cruseo in the meantime) and gets captured again, so she can get in the tomb with the bad guy, where they best some traps, find out the goddess and her curse (which Trinity wants to weaponize or whatever, it remains unclear) are real and then she kills the big bad, gets home. finds out Trinity is actually in the Croft corporation engineered by her evil-in-truth caretaker and buys a set of double pistols. The end. 
So, you sense the first problem there? Lara's no archeologist. Like, not even interested in the stuff. She's doing this to find her dad, and when the movie closes, she does it to expose Trinity. But this is the plot of Batman (and she's essentially Batman on vacation) or Iron Man, not Tomb Raider. Lara Croft isn't exactly known for raiding corporate hideouts, but for raiding tombs. Giving her an actual interest in the stuff instead of making it the exotic background for the plot of the first half of Iron Man would have been a good first step. 
This becomes a problem because of the second premise. The curse of the Japanese godess Himiko is a world-threatening event. If the bad guys win, the earth will go down. It is explicitly stated several times. Those are the stakes. And those are WAY too high for the first movie. It folds into the general second problem: there's too much plot. The movie is two hours long, has four characters and no time to develop them. And that's a goddamn shame, because there's a really solid foundation there to which I will return presently. 
The last problem is the antagonist, a guy named Mathias Vogel (finally a German villain again!). He's the anti-Croft: male, older, only one pistol, amoral. Why is he a problem? He's way too strong. Not only is he the mastermind boss of the whole island operation of Trinity's, he's also in the possession of a magical gun (otherwise it'll make no sense that his pistol is way more efficient than the assault rifles his goons carry around) and a stronger and better fighter than Lara Croft who trained this shit all her life. That's a capital mistake, because it doesn't leave him with weaknesses or relatable flaws, which is a damn shame because, again, there's a solid foundation there. 
To which we now move. The first third of the movie is great. It's the best part of it, and you should basically imagine Batman Begins for what it achieves. Here we have the rich heir denying her destiny and instead going for something they think is right, only to be brought back by external events and face their past. We got two great chase sequences, one in London and one over boats in Hongkong, which are extremely well done. In the end, we know all of Lara's important skills, know she's a good person and that she really, really misses her dad. We also get to know her new buddy, Lu Ren, who also misses his dad, who went missing together with Lara's. There's a good symmetry at work there that brings two people together who have no business being together. 
The same is true on the island: Mathias Vogel has two daughters (of course!) he hasn't seen since 2009, and he wants nothing so much than leave this island to see them again, but he can't until he can signal that he found Himiko's tomb to his employers. Lara's father Richard is hellbent on preventing exactly that even if the price is that he can't see his daughter again, who unfortunately brings the secret grail diary with her and thus starts the official showdown in which daddy sadly dies, making way for Lara to fulfill her destiny(tm). 
But since Vogel is not a relatable poor corporate tool that just wants home and does all the wrong out of this desire, he's presented as a super villain, and that makes him not relatable. Another bad decision is to keep Lara's dad around. He eats away screen time and does nothing to enhance the plot or our understanding of the characters. Instead, the movie totally sidelines Lu Ren, who gets some token scenes in which he rescues (with Lara's help) the enslaved workers of the Trinity project, but this never takes off because we spend no time with him. 
Instead, the movie would have been better off to make Vogel a poor, relatable guy who took his desires to degrees that made him do bad things. Don't even give him a weapon; nobody like that beats Lara in a fistfight, that's ridiculous. 
Second, the movie should have made the island into itself into the antagonist. The 2013 game on which the movie is based did this to great effect, making Lara an archeologist (check) who's shipwrecked with a crew of relatable and established other archeologists (check) which she needs to rescue from a troop of uninteresting goons who soon prove in over their head when the island (and the ghost of Himiko) itself wakens (check) and never ever threatens anything other than not letting them escape again (check). 
But enough about screen writing, let's go to the video game-y stuff. The movie tries to incorporate as many iconic scenes from the game as it can into its letter two thirds: Lara jumping from the wrecked ship, Lara taking a bow and arrowing people, Lara climbing a rusted WWII-bomber that's breaking apart, Lara being taken through a gushing river towards a waterfall, Lara taking a pickaxe and using it for all kinds of stuff, Lara hanging on cliffs, Lara getting pierced by a piece of wood in her side. Those scenes were great in the game, and a lot of them are great on screen. Some, however, really suffer from the compressed time frame of the movie. 
In the game, when Lara stabs herself with the piece of wood and gets it out, the player then searches a space for a camp, makes said camp, sits down at the fire and learns how to navigate the skill tree and the crafting system. Then time passes. Everything is slow. The player learns to hunt, there are some harmless sidequests, etc., in short, there's time to heal. In the movie, she's stabbed in the kidneys and literally a minute later she's freeclimbing. That's the danger of stringing those awesome video game scenes together. 
The other problem is cutting deeper. A large part of the Tomb Raider experience is solving riddles. And Lara in the movie therefore solves riddles. She turns wheels, puts colorful stones in empty holes and cites mystical texts in order to decipher ancient warnings. But in the game, the player does all of this. Here, I watch a woman crawling around doing stuff I don't understand. The silliest scene is the one in which Lara climbs over the door of the tomb for over a minute, while everyone else stands there watching, and turning wheels this way and that. Then the door opens. Achievement unlocked. This does NOT work in a movie. Not at all. And it doesn't get better when she repeats it thrice in the following segment. 
All of this is rather unfortunate, since, as I said, the foundations are strong. The first third especially is just great. But the movie slumps a lot in the middle, and while the pace takes up for the finale, it never really catches since the stakes are at the same time too high and too low - you just know that the zombie virus won't get out of the cave. I have no high hopes for the inevitable sequels. The Trinity plot that they clearly bank on is just not tombraidery enough to carry.'s to hoping.

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