Tomb Raider (2001)

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By Mike Ward

Syzygies

Tomb Raider drops down on theaters attended by a debate similar to that surrounding two upcoming movies that are liable to become TR‘s kindred spirits: the film adaptation of Harry Potter and the first entry in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. To wit: will the movie do enough justice to its source to satisfy an incredibly enthusiastic and knowledgeable fan base? As the movie’s own press kit points out, the Tomb Raider video game series has sold around 21 million units; the games and their associated merchandise have raked in about a half billion dollars. Whatever else we can conclude from the breadth and scope of Lara Croft’s empire, we can be damn sure that many of the people watching Tomb Raider know far more about Lara Croft than the people making the movie could ever hope to learn. How could anyone possibly satisfy such a demanding audience?

In this case, the answer seems to be: don’t even try. From the movie’s opening moments, its relationship with the Tomb Raider video game is perfunctory, too casual to be called an honest effort. Yes, immediately we see Lara raiding tombs, and the movie’s initial fight scene closely mirrors the video game’s balletic violence — right down to Lara’s superhuman aerial somersaults and the miraculously coordinated way she tracks her target with her twin pistols, even while running full-bore to keep from being killed. Aside from these kinesthetic similarities, though, Tomb Raider owes less to its namesake computer game than it does to a host of movies that have come before it, borrowing liberally not only from the Raiders of the Lost Ark series (we all knew that was inevitable), but also from Terminator, Star Wars, James Bond, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even Contact.

In fact, it’s often so derivative that it doesn’t make much sense. This is true from the opening scene, as Lara (Angelina Jolie) tiptoes through an ancient tomb Indiana Jones-style in search of a singular artifact. This turns out to be a microchip guarded by a science fiction-futuristic killer robot with a heads-up display reminiscent of Predator or Robocop. Already this collision of genres is so clumsy and jarring as to give anachronism a bad name, and when it turns out to all be merely a training exercise Lara and her sidekick (Noah Taylor) have cooked up, this only makes the anachronism endemic to the movie’s premise: exactly what kind of situations does Lara encounter in these tombs that she should train for them in such a way?

We get two subsequent opportunities to find out: Lara’s raids on the “Tomb of the Dancing Light” and the “Temple of Ten Thousand Shadows.” These episodes are the points of greatest tension in a murky storyline involving the “Illuminati,” a “secret” society that nevertheless meets in an enormous gilded hall about as inconspicuous as the House of Commons. The movie assures us that if the Illuminati can get the two split halves of an artifact called “The Triangle of Light” before what they call the “relevant” planetary alignment happens, they will be able to turn back time and get the power of God. (They never mention any “irrelevant” planetary alignments for comparison, but since the Big One only happens once every 5,000 years, we know it’s important indeed.) To find these artifacts, the Illuminati must first steal a key from Lara; shaped like an eye, this key is used to unlock the tombs where the halves of the artifact are kept.

Aside from being just the kind of plot that’s fun to try and follow when you’re stoned — or extremely tired — this completely irrational setup nevertheless provides the usual action-movie prerequisites: the teams (Lara vs. the Illuminati), the balls (the triangle halves and the key), and the field of play (the tombs). Watching the CGI-saturated, hypnotic fight scenes that ensue as Lara and the Illuminati try to get all the artifacts at once, it’s easy to miss the fact that this setup has also introduced the movie’s broadest, most symbolic anachronism. On the one hand, the torn halves of the “Triangle of Light,” deliberately separated long, long ago, roughly evoke those Old Testament yarns — like Adam and Eve’s eviction from Eden, or the collapse of the Tower of Babel — about humanity’s fall from a state of grace that can only exist in the past. In this sense, the movie flirts with a Raiders of the Lost Ark-style theology, one involving the vengeful God and unredeemed humanity that preceded the salvation of Christ.

On the other hand, though, is this business of absolutely predictable syzygies and the movie’s fascination with clockwork. The key Lara finds is hidden in a clock; when the movie flashes back to Lara’s childhood, her father is instructing her with the aid of a clockwork miniature of the solar system; and the movie’s central mystery, like the one in Mission to Mars or several other films is a gigantic version of this planetary machine. The vengefulness is still there — to get the artifact Lara must climb this machine, but at the slightest misstep it will grind her limb from limb. Still, this is more the vengefulness of an indifferent universe than that of an angry God, a movie version of the whirling, widening gyre with maybe a bit more tits and gunplay than Yeats would have found tasteful.

All this symbolism would be quite impressive, actually, if the movie ever gave the slightest impression it knew where it was going with it or was eventually planning to use these symbols to say something coherent. As it is, the import of the “Triangle of Light” and that of the movie’s clockwork cosmology cancel each other out — one presupposes a terrifying God, the other is terrified at this God’s absence. So one is left to conclude that all this is a consequence not of the movie’s desire to revisit age-old religious conundrums, but simply its inability to resist playing with big, big symbols.

Indeed, when the movie’s priorities are taken into account — its meticulously rendered special effects and life-sized, elaborate set pieces, combined with a script that seems to have been hastily, drunkenly scribbled on dinner napkins — the question of whether the movie will do justice to the formidable Lara Croft pop-cult juggernaut is replaced by another, slightly more depressing one: could it possibly be that when a phenomenon as lucrative as Lara Croft or Harry Potter comes along, it matters less whether its movie adaptation is done well than that it simply be done one way or another. All questions of religious symbolism aside, if you think about Illuminati, eyes, and triangles, while looking at the back of a dollar bill (right over where it says “The Great Seal”), you may get a better sense of which Almighty this movie really worships.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/tomb-raider1/