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Tomb Raider Review: A Moderate Leap, But Major Progress

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Earlier this year, I expressed a sincere hope that the new “Tomb Raider” movie would finally do something that no other video game movie had managed to do. I hoped that it would be to video game movies what the original “X-men” was to modern superhero movies. I’d even hoped that Lara Croft could be to video game characters what “Wonder Woman” was to female superheroes.

That last one might have been hoping for too much, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Hollywood get at least one movie based on a video game really right. Between the lackluster “Resident Evil” movies and the god-awful “Super Mario Bros,” the genre is overdue for a hit.

I get that there are challenges associated with making a movie out of a video game. However, Lara Croft and “Tomb Raider” is in a better position than most. It’s a franchise that has an iconic character who has built a strong fanbase over the course of two decades. The fact that she’s a strong, sexy female character at a time when the appetite for such characters is greater than ever works even more to her benefit.

While Lara Croft’s sex appeal has been controversial in recent years, she’s still a great character whose games already have a very cinematic feel. Having played her 2013 game multiple times, I can attest to the strength of that narrative. It has all the necessary elements that translate well to a movie.

This movie, being a franchise that has already attempted twice with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s to mixed success, seems to make a better effort than most to succeed where so many have fail. This version of “Tomb Raider” works hard to tell a real, serious story on par with that of any other successful action franchise. It tries to do this while still incorporating elements of the game into the narrative.

It’s ambitious and sincere. It also helps that it cast Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning actress whose brilliance and sex appeal in “Ex Machina” made her well-suited to the role. Criticisms of her having the necessary boobs for the role aside, Ms. Vikander can act and be sexy in her own right. It’s only a matter of whether she can channel that talent into making “Tomb Raider” succeed where so many others have failed.

Well, having seen the movie on its opening weekend, I’d like to offer my assessment on this matter. While I’ll always be haunted, to some extent, by terrible video game movies like “Super Mario Bros,” I went in feel genuinely hopeful for this movie. I was also bracing myself, knowing as well as anyone the history of video game movies.

With that mentality going into the theater, I eagerly gave “Tomb Raider” and Alicia Vikander the benefit of the doubt. By the time I came out of the theater, I was able to come to a simple conclusion, albeit one with a few caveats.

Yes, this is a good movie, but it’s not a game-changer.

It’s true. “Tomb Raider” is an genuinely good video game movie. I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to say that with a straight face in my lifetime, but I can and it’s worth saying again. This is a good movie.

By that, I mean the movie has a concise, well-crafted story from start to finish. The movie establishes who Lara Croft is, what she’s dealing with, and what kind of person she is. The plot isn’t too messy. The effects aren’t too cheesy. The acting is actually good and not just from Ms. Vikander. Everyone in this movie seems to make a real, honest effort.

Like the 2013 video game, the movie follows a young, inexperienced Lara Croft who has yet to become the sexy badass that went onto inspire so much lurid fan art. However, by the end of the movie, you can already see traces of that sexy badass growing within her. As a character, she grows and evolves over the course of the movie. Watching her grow and seeing her struggle at times is genuinely compelling.

The story and the details surrounding it are tight and well-organized. At no point in the movie is there a scene that feels random, contrived, or forced. The events that unfold happen organically, from Lara getting arrested early in the movie to unlocking the secrets to an ancient tomb on the hidden island of Yamatai. Nothing ever just happens. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the story.

It’s a story that is not bland or predictable, even to those who played the 2013 game multiple times, like I did. The movie downplays some of the more mystical elements of Lara Croft’s mythos, but still incorporates plenty of the over-the-top machinations that Tomb Raider and “Indiana Jones” fans alike can appreciate.

However, it’s that effort to make the movie feel less fanciful that, in my opinion, keeps it from being the kind of game-changing movie that “X-men” and “Wonder Woman” were. While “Tomb Raider” qualifies as a good movie, it doesn’t do enough to be a truly great movie.

This movie, in many respects, plays it safe. While it puts Lara through plenty of tough situations, things never get too dire for her. She’s allowed to suffer and endure wounds, but only to a point. Others, including her father as played by Dominic West, arguably endure a whole lot more.

Safe or not, it’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t try to do too much all at once. Movies that do that tend to get messy, as many recent Michael Bay films can attest. I think “Tomb Raider” did the right thing, playing it safe and keeping things simple. It left some of its potential on the table, but did plenty to leave much of that potential available for future sequels.

That’s somewhat of a gamble, though. Too many movies, these days, are made solely with sequels in mind and sometimes that assumes too much. Anyone who saw “Green Lantern” or “The Mummy” can attest to that. At least with “Tomb Raider,” the ending and the revelations it offers actually leave you feeling excited for a sequel.

That’s a gamble that may or may not pay off. I’m aware that this movie did not exactly set the box office on fire, especially in a market still dominated by “Black Panther.” However, it did manage to pull in some decent numbers overseas and that might give this movie the fuel it needs to become a full-fledged franchise.

Again, the movie does have flaws. If you go into “Tomb Raider” looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll find them. If you think Ms. Vikander wasn’t sexy enough, you’ll find points in the movie to vindicate that. Conversely, if you think Ms. Vikander was too sexy and her portrayal in this movie is contributing to sexism and the objectification of women, you’ll find instances of that too.

If, however, you go in hoping for a good, coherent movie that tells a compelling, dramatic story, you’ll find that “Tomb Raider” delivers. In fact, I would argue that it delivers in ways no video game movie has ever managed before. It doesn’t do quite enough to be a new “Wonder Woman,” but it achieves far more than any previous video game movie has ever dared.

If I were to score this movie, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10 or a 7.5 out of 10 at the lowest. “Tomb Raider” has an opportunity to redefine a maligned movie genre and it succeeds. With other movies like “Rampage” coming out this year, the situation is ripe for a new generation of video game movies that aren’t terrible.

Whether your a fan of the games, a fan of action movies, or just looking for a great female character played by someone other than Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson, “Tomb Raider” will give you plenty to enjoy. It may still be a while before we can relegate movies like “Super Mario Bros” to the same dusty bin as “Batman and Robin,” but “Tomb Raider” offers a critical first step.

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Can “Tomb Raider” Succeed Like “Wonder Woman” (And Begin A Larger Trend)?

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It seems so long ago, but there was a time when movies based on superheroes were in the same sorry state as those based on video games. The fact I’m old enough to remember those days makes me feel way older than I want, but it’s still remarkable to consider at a time before big budget superhero movies like “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3” grossed over a billion dollars.

That’s a huge shift from the mid to late 1990s, an era where such craptacular cinematic turds like “Batman and Robin” and “Super Mario Brothers” created the sentiment that those kinds of movies were box office poison. I’m sure some have yet to forgive Joel Shumacher and whoever thought casting Dennis Hopper as Bowser was a good idea.

That all changed, at least for superhero movies, when “X-men” hit theaters in 2000. Even with the stench of Shumacher’s failure lingering, that film proved that superhero movies can be both good and make a lot of money. As a result, the modern era of superhero movies was born.

While that has been great for the superhero movie genre, the video game genre didn’t fare as well. It’s not just because “Super Mario Brothers” was that bad, though. It’s more a matter of bad timing, bad execution, and movie studios just plain not knowing how to make a decent video game movie.

There have been attempts, including one “Doom” movie and fiveResident Evil” movies. None of them were the kind of hit that could kick-start an entire genre. Granted, Milla Jovovich made a respectable effort. Like the nipples on George Clooney’s Batman costume, though, it just didn’t take. As such, video game movies remain a punchline instead of a genre.

That may be about to change, though. Just this past week, a second trailer dropped for a movie that could do for video games what “X-men” did for superheroes. That movie is “Tomb Raider,” the same title of one of the most successful video game franchises of the past 20 years, which also happens to star one of the most famous, not to mention sexiest heroines of all time.

Unlike “Resident Evil” or “Super Mario Brothers,” Lara Croft is the kind of character who can work just as well in an action movie as she does a video game. Her being a digital sex symbol is just a nice bonus. The fact that Warner Brothers cast Alicia Vikander to play her role, an Oscar winning actress who did plenty to establish her sex appeal in “Ex Machina,” shows they’re really trying this time.

Just watch the trailer. Even for those who have never played a “Tomb Raider” game or cared much for Lara Croft can’t deny the potential. I still hesitate to say it, but this might just be a true video game movie that doesn’t suck.

I say that not just because of the trailer. Modern audience have learned since “Snakes on a Plane” that an awesome trailer rarely makes for an awesome movie. I’m daring to have confidence in this movie because it looks like it’s trying to capture the theme and spirit of the game without sacrificing the quality of the movie. For video game movies, that’s unprecedented.

Beyond the apparent effort, though, there’s something else “Tomb Raider” has going for it. Thanks to the success of “Wonder Woman” last year, which I so happily documented, this movie is coming along at the best possible time.

It’s not just generic male heroes or John McClane rip-offs that appeal to audiences anymore. “Wonder Woman” proved that there is a market for female heroes. Not only was that movie critically praised. It made a lot of money, more than all five “Resident Evil” movies combined. Nobody can argue that female heroes don’t sell anymore. Wonder Woman proved they do and “Tomb Raider” can take it a step further.

I believe this because the Lara Croft that’s set to show up in this movie is not the same Lara Croft that once drew so much ire from whiny pop culture critics who think every attractive female character is just fodder for horny male gamers. This a different, more complex Lara Croft than the one that Angelina Jolie tried to bring to life in two previous “Tomb Raider” movies.

Now, I don’t want to dwell too much on those movies or the associated flaws with them. I’ll just say that, while I don’t consider those movies bad, they really were just generic action movies slapped with a “Tomb Raider” logo. Angelina Jolie certainly had the sex appeal, but it did little to make Lara Croft that interesting, which showed in the critical response and the box office for both movies.

The Lara Croft that Alicia Vikander is playing in this movie has more complexity and nuance to her. That version of Lara came to life in the 2013 “Tomb Raider” video game that rebooted her story. Having played that game multiple times and joined the chorus of its many critical praises, I can say with confidence that this trailer captured those critical elements from that game.

In the 2013 game, Lara doesn’t start out as the sexy, sassy archaeology enthusiast who loves to shoot guns and run around in hot pants. She’s an ambitious, but inexperienced young woman who is still growing into that persona and over the course of the game, she eventually develops into that character that so many video game fans know and love.

As other successful movies have shown, establishing growth in a character and making them someone we can root for goes a long way towards making a movie compelling. Part of what made “Wonder Woman” so great was that we got to see her grow into the beautiful female icon that so many cherish. The previous “Tomb Raider” movies, and most video game movies in general, barely tried.

Instead, most video game movies make the mistake of assuming the audience already knows the characters and just plops them into an action-heavy story with no purpose, heart, or major drama. If there is any drama, it’s usually forced or contrived. This version of “Tomb Raider” looks like it will take those same dramatic elements that made the 2013 game so compelling and translate them into the movie.

This version of “Tomb Raider” also has the benefit of coming out at a time when there’s a legitimate push for female-led movies. It’s very different from the Angelina Jolie era, whose movies came out a time when legendary flops like “Elektra” and “Catwoman” were setting back female heroes for a decade. Studios can’t get away with being that reckless with female characters anymore.

It’s for that reason that I have genuinely high hopes for this movie. It’s also because of the success of “Wonder Woman” that I believe there’s already an audience that’s eager to help “Tomb Raider” succeed.

Hollywood is already trying to capture that audience with movies like “Atomic Blond” and “Red Sparrow.” The recent announcement of a “Black Widow” movie being in development by Marvel Studios is only adding more momentum to the future of female heroes in movie.

Tomb Raider” succeeding will do even more than just build upon that momentum. It will establish that the success of “Wonder Woman” was not a fluke. It is possible to build a successful, lucrative franchise around more than one powerful woman. Lara Croft may not be an amazon warrior, but she has the potential to carve a place for herself in an increasingly competitive market.

Now, I don’t discount the potential that this movie could also fail. Like I said, video game movies have an abysmal track record, to say the least. That legacy is going to be difficult to overcome, but as “X-men” showed in 2000, it only takes one hit to start a trend. It’s a trend that I believe needs to happen for the good of the entire movie industry.

Even if you’re among the crowd who thinks the media is trying way too hard to push diversity in movies, video games, comics, and whatever other form of media is trying to turn a quick buck, it’s better for everyone that we have heroes who actually vary from time to time. There shouldn’t be that many similarities between John McClane, Luke Skywalker, and James Bond and every major movie icon of the past 50 years.

There is room for female heroes. There’s also room for movies based on video games. It’s not good for the industry, as a whole, if the only successful franchises come from Disney, Marvel, and the collective minds of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee. By succeeding, “Tomb Raider” will open the door for a broader array of movies and female character.

That added variety need not come at the expense of the established male characters that we all know and love. “Wonder Woman” didn’t have to knock Superman or Batman down a peg in order to succeed. She found a way to succeed on her own and the superhero movie genre is better because of it. Lara Croft is fully capable of succeeding as well and the video game movie genre will be better too.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on this movie. Like “Wonder Woman,” it’s success will have far-reaching implications beyond the movie itself. It has everything it needs to succeed, from quality source material to an Oscar-winning actress to a market that’s recently demonstrated that iconic female characters can make millions at the box office. It just needs to follow through.

It’s doubtful that “Tomb Raider” will succeed at the same level as “Wonder Woman,” but it doesn’t have to. It just needs to turn a profit and capture all the elements that make Lara Croft great. If it can achieve that, then the future for both video game movies and female heroes is brighter than ever. It may not make us forget “Super Mario Brothers,” but it’ll help us move forward.

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