Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: In praise of the best video game movie we have (so far)

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Mar 14, 2018, 6:02 PM EDT

There is a commonly held belief in cinema that you can’t make a good movie out of a video game. For whatever reason, filmmakers and the industry have yet to crack the code of adaptation as it relates to the gaming medium. They’ve certainly tried their hardest to make it happen, but the results so far have veered from mediocre (Assassin's Creed) to forgettable (Doom) to legendary train wreck (Super Mario Bros.). Turning an inherently participatory medium into one of spectatorship has proven too tough a challenge for many. That hasn’t stopped the major Hollywood studios from trying, of course. There’s big money in video games and it makes sense to latch onto those intellectual properties (and the built-in audiences they come with).

So, it only makes sense that someone would try to revive the Tomb Raider franchise for the big screen. Twenty-two years after the iconic character made her debut in the PlayStation and Sega Saturn game, Lara Croft is making a comeback. Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander dons the tank top for an adaptation of the 2013 reboot game, and it's safe to say we're excited for it. Yet it's also prompted us to look back at the first movie adaptation — one that, at the time, just seemed like further proof that video game movies were dead on arrival. Really, Tomb Raider may be the best video game movie we have. At least, so far.

The 2001 action-adventure film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider made its way to cinemas amidst a flurry of hype. It was one of the biggest video games on the planet, with a heroine who inspired wild devotion in her fans, and it seemed like every major actress on the planet had auditioned for the role. The casting of Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie proved controversial with some fans, who felt the wild-child of Hollywood was an ill fit for the regal vixen of archaeology (remember, this was pre-Brad Pitt and her evolution into a successful humanitarian). Of course, some also complained about her breasts not being big enough for Lara, which is a complaint we’re not even going to pretend was ever legitimate. Reviews at the time were tepid, and the box office was good enough to warrant a sequel, but it wasn't the gigantic hit Paramount was hoping for. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, it feels only right to give the film its fair dues. What was written off as a disappointment has only benefited from the passing of time.

Tomb Raider is very silly at its core. It’s a blocky action game with mythic influences that involves long stretches of silence where Lara, always clad in hot-pants and super-tight tops, runs through the wilderness. In the first game, she deals with lost cities and mutants, and in later editions she fought dragons and found alien spacecrafts in Area 51. At its best, in the early PlayStation days, Tomb Raider was Indiana Jones with a healthy dose of self-conscious camp. The film keeps that up with a thoroughly frivolous story of the Illuminati, time controlling triangles, sentient Buddhist statues, and the occasional battle with a robot. Really, the film knows that the story is inconsequential. You’re here for Lara, for gun-fights and for pure, undiluted fun.

Arguments continue to this day over the objectification of Lara Croft, a character with breasts so unnaturally large that even Barbie wants to offer her back-pain advice. Whatever side you fall on that discussion, it’s hard to overlook the knowing silliness of a gun-toting upper-class British lady who retrieves rare antiquities and keeps trying to lock her butler in the walk-in fridge. For all the faults of the film, it gleefully nails that silliness. Everyone in this movie knows exactly how daft it all is and is enjoying the hell out of it. Why else would you add a scene where Lara bounces around her house on bungee cords?

Jolie is perfect casting for first generation Lara. She’s refined enough to pull off the life of an English noblewoman who lives in a stately home, but also fits incredibly well with the physicality of the role. The camera leers at her just a tad — it was almost a prerequisite for such an adaptation — but not as much as the games. Indeed, it’s pre-Bond-era Daniel Craig who gets to be gawked at while naked for a change.

That kitsch factor remains with Jolie’s presence. It helps that she looks like she’s having an absolute ball in the role, imbuing that untouchable glamour with a cartoonish awareness. When it’s time for the seemingly required shower scene — hey, it’s in the game — Jolie plays it like she’s in a melodramatic shampoo ad. Why be serious when there’s so much fun to be had? How else are you supposed to play a character that’s part-Indiana Jones, part-Jessica Rabbit?

All of this is what makes the film work as a video game adaptation — it knows the medium and plays with it on those terms. It has no qualms with keeping its tongue firmly in cheek, refusing to delve into faux-edginess or forced nihilism in the name of making a “serious movie.” That’s not to say the film isn’t willing to get serious — there’s some surprising pathos to be found in scenes involving Lara’s father, played by Jolie’s real-life dad, Jon Voight — or that it’s flaw-free — the villain is dull, Jolie doesn’t have much chemistry with Craig, and the CGI was dated even in 2001. Whatever blemishes there are in the film, they feel inconsequential to what is ultimately a rollicking good time.

Alicia Vikander will be the Lara for today, a reflection of our changing attitudes and tastes regarding strong female characters in pop culture. Hopefully, generations of teen girls will latch onto her the way I did with Jolie’s Lara. Her impact, and the ultimate joy of her film, shouldn’t be maligned. As reductive as Lady Croft was to many, she still stands tall as one of the truly great heroines of modern geekdom, even in her blockiest form. In an age where it seems our heroes are still striving too hard to be grim, we should celebrate the unabashed ridiculousness of Lara, her guns, and that ever-knowing raised eyebrow. Hopefully, the future of video game movies is bright, but for now, we could do worse than Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.

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