Tomb Raider: A Franchise Is Born?

The following is a review of the 2018 film Tomb Raider initially composed for my personal newsletter. It has been lightly edited for a broader audience, but should still be interpreted predominately as me expressing my personal thoughts on the film rather than a foolhardy attempt at “objective” evaluation.

Video game movies have an impressively awful track record, particularly with critics, and if early reviews are any indication it’s unlikely that this film-based-on-a-game-inspired-by-a-franchise will break that record. However, good grief does it try. Alicia Vikander’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal, selling the evolution of young Lara Croft from curious twenty-something adventurer to hardened killer in two hours arguably better than the game it’s based on ever did. Beyond that, the film’s most polarizing components will likely be the numerous set pieces it lifts from the game: from shipwrecks to deadly rapids, spike traps to ice axes, Tomb Raider feels at times like a sizzle reel for the 2013 game. And while that is great for someone like me who loved the game, it may be off-putting for those with no prior knowledge of Lara or who are not keen on the recent direction of the franchise.

I saw Tomb Raider opening night, and shortly after getting home I posted a photo in support of the film. That unwavering and immediate support has made me acutely aware of subsequent negative reviews and makes me feel somewhat compelled to defend the film against them. Because whether or not it is a “good movie,” I really loved Tomb Raider. What I’m most wrestling with is how we ought to judge adaptations, particularly of games — source material with dozens of hours to develop characters and plotlines, and which are as much predicated on player interaction and mechanics as they are vehicles for story. I think it’s fair to question the wisdom of even making film adaptations of games. But if they are going to exist, on what merits should they be judged? Do we evaluate them as films — which, of course, they are — or on the basis of their fidelity to source material, even if it resists linear, hands-off presentation?

I also think it is perfectly fair to question whether Tomb Raider would have been better trying to tell its own brand new Lara Croft story rather than explicitly drawing on and re-presenting scenes from a game. That may have alienated strong fans of the games, but those fans may well be alienated anyway by the places where the film takes liberties and significantly departures from plot points in the game. Yet catering to cinematic audiences — that is, people who will see Tomb Raider because it’s an action movie or because they loved The Danish Girl, not because they like or know anything about the games — almost requires this to be an origin story, and it’s hard to argue for a complete reworking of Lara’s origins after she has so recently had them reworked multiple times.

And so we go with an adaptation that borrows heavily from the game without duplicating it, with enough preface material to establish the general things that make Lara who she is: her rebellious spirit, her antagonistic relationship with the family wealth, her physical prowess, her clever personality. And then it’s a speedrun: finding Yamatai, facing and escaping capture, acquiring weaponry, and attempting to thwart Trinity. The pacing is brisk to the point of jarring, and leaves little room for nearly any of the other characters to breathe. Which is a shame, because a decent supporting cast certainly had more to offer than it had a chance to give here. On the other hand, this may have been a blessing, because the sidelining of everyone else in order to focus on Lara almost (almost) justifies the absence of some of the most memorable and effective characters in the 2013 game, especially Sam and Jonah.

Ultimately, Tomb Raider is working under a lot of pressure. It’s trying to relaunch a franchise still memorably (if winkingly) associated with Angelina Jolie; refreshen an already-told origin tale; and condense a sprawling exploration-driven experience into a tight, brief plot; all while juggling the difficult task of turning a happy-go-lucky college-ager into a survivalist in an under-120-minute window. And while it’d be dishonest to say the film succeeds at everything it tries to be, I think it’s also important to ask what else it could have done with so many boxes to check.

Alicia Vikander pours her Oscar-winning heart into this performance and I have no doubt that, if given the chance to thrive in a film untethered by the obligations of a daddy-issues origin story, she (and the Tomb Raider franchise) can breathe new life into a dusty genre whose most recent offerings have included Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a surprising amount of Nicolas Cage, and whatever that disaster with Tom Cruise was supposed to be. I desperately want to see future Tomb Raider movies, and so critical reception aside I am really pulling for this one to pay off at the box office. Meanwhile, if you like the games at all, if you like Vikander, or if you just want a fun popcorn flick packed with action and adventure (if not much else), go see Tomb Raider this weekend.

Note: Featured Image taken from the official Tomb Raider movie Instagram account.

Never Sleep Again. Or Do.

Roughly one month ago I set out to fill my October with horror. Admittedly, I got sidetracked by reading (still horror — Stephen King’s Night Shift anthology) and by a frankly unhealthy amount of Dragon Age Inquisition. So instead of getting a weekly terror update, you’re getting a postmortem.

Again, while I have grown to dislike the idea of rating for quality, I figured I’d toss in an appraisal of enjoyment, a la the Goodreads system. So: 1/5 Didn’t like it, 2/5 Meh, 3/5 Liked it, 4/5 Really liked it, 5/5 Loved it.

Saw (2004). I loved this movie. I loved it enough to be get mad at its money-grubbing legacy, because I’m firmly convinced that had the franchise not led into a seemingly endless trail of gratuitous violence and voyeurism, this would have gone down as one of the best crime thrillers in decades. While subsequent movies have reveled in disgusting you with on-screen macabre, Saw opts mostly for subtlety: you are given the setup, the premise of something terrible, and then it’s up to your imagination to follow things to their gruesome conclusions. The film is a slow, almost plodding mystery, and even at its most twisted it’s a story about redemption. No one wants to wake up in one of Jigsaw’s traps, but the message of those traps is one worthy of consideration: most of us take our lives for granted. We shouldn’t. 5/5

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962). I find that horror is frequently more aptly categorized as suspense or thriller (depending on whether the dread is creeping or relentless). As such, this classic “horror” tale of a crippled actress and her caretaker-cum-jailer of a sister isn’t so much frightening as upsetting, taking a long time (perhaps, by today’s standards, too long) to truly become the film you want it to be. It’s not the easiest movie to watch, but if you have the patience I daresay Bette Davis and Joan Crawford deliver a third act well worth sticking around for. 3/5

American Psycho (2000). Years after having “Hip to Be Square” permanently associated with axe-murdering courtesy of a youtube clip, I finally got around to watching that movie in which Christian Bale should probably see a psychiatrist about the dark secret behind his late-night activities. No, the other one. Ultimately, I have to say I was mostly disappointed. The use of music (and Patrick Bateman’s jarringly incongruous history lesson monologues) to accompany moments of fetishistic violence is intriguing, but for the most part the film feels pointless and banal, an exercise in ego and shock more than crafty storytelling. 2/5

The Blair Witch Project (1999). I still remember hearing classmates discussing this movie when it first came out: utterly terrified, especially of the woods, and especially at night. Sixteen years later, I’ve finally seen it, and while it hasn’t made me any less apt to stumble into a forest (dark or otherwise), it has impressed me. This was the first of what became a nauseating (sometimes literally) array of shaky-cam found footage “documentary” horror, and it’s probably the best I’ve seen. About two-thirds of the way through the film, I suddenly remembered that these were actors with a script, and smiled at how real the acting and filming was. There are smarter movies out there, but it’s rare to see such vision and talent make the most of a shoestring budget, or to see such believable character development over such a short period of time. 4/5

The Babadook (2014). I have lost track of how many people and publications I heard going on and on about how terrifying and original The Babadook is. A single mother and her child read a picture book that they perhaps ought not have, and it isn’t long before the imaginary monsters Samuel has been fighting turn out to not be imaginary. The film certainly has its moments — the book’s mysterious return and, shall we say, updates, for example — but for the most part it felt rather predictable and not so much frightening as creepy. A well-conceived tale, for sure, but hardly the masterpiece others have painted it. 3/5

Crimson Peak (2015). Imagine if Emily Brontë had played Silent Hill before writing Wuthering Heights, and you’ll essentially have Guillermo del Toro’s latest movie. Despite the advertising, this is not really a horror movie. It’s a dark gothic romance with horror moments. Yes, there are gruesome deaths and the odd haunting here or there. But those are merely window dressing to a story about people and forbidden passion. A strong cast is upstaged by the staging itself — “gorgeous” and “breathtaking” do not really do the aesthetic of the film justice. Ultimately, Crimson Peak is a place you want to visit in spite of all the reasons to stay far away from it, and it was a highlight of my October. 5/5

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994). I truly did not intend to watch any of the Freddy Krueger films until I’d seen the first one (which, eventually, I did; see below), but it simply turned out that I saw his last film first (not including the ones that followed, right?). I was warned that the goal of this movie had been to give Freddy a better ending than the one he received in the movie that had killed him, and that Craven had wanted a more sinister, less funny version of the knife-fingered wonder. So I expected this to be “gritty” and “serious” in a way it really, really wasn’t. If you’re unfamiliar with the premise, get ready for something very meta: this is a Wes Craven movie starring Freddy Krueger about the people who make Wes Craven movies starring Freddy Krueger trying to make a Wes Craven movie to stop Freddy Krueger from escaping. It also stars Wes Craven. It goes about as well as you could hope for with a premise like that: a little too cheesy, a little too self-aware, but not unwatchable. I’m just glad that Craven moved on to make Scream next, because it’s a far better showcase of his talent and understanding of the genre (and, for that matter, the medium). 2/5

Halloween (1978). Music in a film isn’t everything (see above re: American Psycho), but having good music doesn’t hurt. And when John Carpenter’s piano theme starts playing, I smile. The story of Michael Myers, revenant psychopath whose homecoming is something nobody asked for, makes very little sense, from the opening moments in which a person incarcerated since he was six years old manages to successfully steal (and subsequently quite adeptly operate) a car he should by no means be able to drive. We don’t really have any justification for his choice of victims (they’re not even living in his old house). All we get is a creepy, silent guy, with a pasty (almost, almost comical) mask, who likes standing across the street and staring at the people he will eventually try to (and, often, successfully) kill. And I guess it works, because they have made an awful lot of these movies. For what it’s worth, I also watched Halloween 4, in which (among things) Myers impales someone through a wall with a gun and shoves his finger through someone’s skull (not their eye, their skull), so sensibleness really doesn’t seem to be the target for the franchise. 3/5

Child’s Play (1988). It took twenty years, but I finally faced my fears and watched the movie whose advertisement alone gave me two weeks of nightmares as a kid. And boy was it stupid. I’ll give the film credit for at least trying to incorporate mysticism into its monster (something Halloween didn’t care to do), and there are some good heh heh heh moments (read: batteries). But the movie stays in a comic mode for the most part, rarely becoming actually frightening, frequently going over-the-top on purpose (did you hear the one about the doll who leveled an entire building?). And while this isn’t necessarily the movie’s fault, it’s obnoxious that a string of sequels followed, because the mythology explaining Chucky’s possession (and subsequent defeat) was neatly-wrapped and didn’t really provide for his resurrection. Knowing that the doll comes back cheapens things for me, but maybe I’m still not over my childhood trauma. 2/5

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). “Never Sleep Again,” the film warns and promises, though a few hours after watching Freddy Krueger’s inaugural slashing spree I was sleeping (alone, in the dark, in the basement) quite contentedly. The film teeters between unnerving and ridiculous, and as with Saw I can’t help feeling that the fear is more rooted in the conceptual — what if “it’s only a dream” didn’t work anymore? — than in what actually is happening on the screen. The special effects in this film deserve the recognition they often receive; it’s difficult to make someone being pulled up a wall and onto the ceiling not look completely ridiculous (never mind actually frightening), but seeing the real-world repercussions of Freddy’s dream-world machinations was always impressively believable and, accordingly, legitimately suspenseful. The ending is stupid in the way only horror movies can winkingly be (shoutout to Evil Dead for a similar “REALLY?!”-inducing final scene), but then I’d already lost hope in franchise movies bothering to be reasonable. 4/5

Friday the 13th (1980). I’m just going to go ahead and put this out there: This movie sucks. Not “it hasn’t aged well,” or “it’s cheesy.” It is simply not a good movie. From the obnoxious “ch ch ch ah ah ah” soundtrack to the squeezing of all exposition into the final five minutes to the fact that everyone is dead before anyone even recognizes that people are dying, I honestly cannot fathom how this movie was popular enough to become a perennial classic. As the credits rolled, I scratched my head, wondering seriously how a franchise about a hockey mask-wearing Jason with a machete got launched by a movie featuring, really, none of those things. 1/5

Last night, I watched someone livestream her attempt to play Konami’s P.T. for the first time. She relied frequently on the pause button to catch her breath, asking if she could please stop and play something else (it was a charity stream; the answer was no). She had wrapped herself up in a blanket and was curled up as far from the TV as the room permitted, and had to nearly strain her neck to see over her knees and the controller which she had pulled up close to her face. Someone in the room jokingly yelled off-camera, and she legitimately screamed. There was a real fear there, an actual anxiety, a deep-seated loathing of what she was seeing. Or, rather, what she might see, or thought she might see. Because, in fact, P.T. involves little more than walking down empty hallways for the first twenty minutes or so. Nothing had even happened. Yet, terror.

Watching last night, it struck me that not only had I never felt this emotion to that extent, but I might never have experienced it at all. As I scrolled through reviews of that Stephen King collection (after posting my own), I saw readers confess that they could not read these stories after nightfall. I saw some say they’d been unable to finish. Having done most of my reading after midnight, when everyone else in the house was asleep upstairs, I legitimately cannot comprehend the experience others have had with this same material. And if it’s true of games and it’s true of books, then I have to guess it’s true of these movies. What I laughed or yawned or rolled my eyes at last month, others have doubled their electricity bills and seen psychiatrists over.

As November takes the reins and I turn my focus elsewhere, my mind goes back to the six year-old child, unable to look away from the television screen as a toy races to the bottom of a slide while holding a butcher knife and laughing. It took me two decades to confront that horror and when I finally did, I laughed. And so I wonder: would everyone else laugh too, if they could just stick it through to the end? Is it really just the imagination — the fear of what might happen — that lends this genre the grip it has? Does seeing the monster also defeat it? Are the reviews I read simply so many adults who haven’t learned to stop being children?

I’ll have to sleep on that.

Horror Thoughts 10.05.2015

The air is cold and someone has hopefully awoken Green Day by now, which of course means that the Internet has positively exploded with fall fever. October has become a bit of a pastime in itself, a reason to change Twitter handles to something Halloween-themed (if you’re wondering, Bogert became Boggart), to get caught up in the so-called “skeleton wars,” and in my case to try in vain to experience that ostensibly strongest of negative affect: fear.

I say in vain because to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever actually been scared by a piece of fiction. Well, not since I was a kid, when my father ill-advisedly quipped, “Oh look, it’s your mom’s favorite movie” and a not-quite-old-enough-to-get-sarcasm me was scarred nigh indefinitely by an ad for Child’s Play.

Chucky notwithstanding, I’ve gotten a little tired of not being scared. So very frequently, I see horror films and novels plastered with promises — often by people I’m wont to trust — that this story will terrify me, that it will raise the hair on the back of my neck, that it will render useless the off position of my light switch at night. And so very frequently, I experience nothing of the sort. To wit: I watched The Exorcist alone in the basement with the lights out, and subsequently slept like a baby.

So this month, in the spirit of the season, I’ve turned myself towards the task of watching a lot of horror, in the hopes that something will live up to the hype and actually unsettle me. I figured if I’m going to watch so many movies I may as well at least also briefly mention my thoughts on them, and so this is the first of what will be four or five posts encapsulating my experience. Stay tuned to see if anything actually scares me.

Also, while I have grown to dislike the idea of rating for quality, I figured I’d toss in an appraisal of enjoyment, a la the Goodreads system. So: 1/5 Didn’t like it, 2/5 Meh, 3/5 Liked it, 4/5 Really liked it, 5/5 Loved it.

The Shining, 1980 (2/5). This is probably a competent flick (Kubrick is known for meticulous film craft, after all), but it is an absolutely awful adaptation of the book. Stephen King’s Overlook is actually pretty creepy. Metaphoric (but all too real) wasp nests and a sinister game of Red Light, Green Light with the hotel’s hedge menagerie are among my favorite things in the novel, but neither made it into the movie. I also think that real fear depends on a degree of subtlety that Jack is really lacking in this film; he pretty much starts off the film as an edgy and unstable-seeming man, which makes his descent into madness too telegraphed and not very tragic.

Funny Games, 1997 (3/5). I’m told the 2007 remake is incredibly faithful to the original, to the point where seeing one is as good as seeing the other. I hadn’t seen either, though a friend (upon seeing I was watching this) told me it’s her favorite in the genre. I can half understand that: this story of a well-to-do family’s nightmare of a home invasion is gripping and meticulously designed. The hopelessness it depicts is uncomfortably nonchalant, and everything that happens feels both inevitable and completely unnecessary. I’m still not sure how I feel about the movie’s approach to audience awareness — it’s either genius or it completely undermines the film, no real room for middle ground — but the movie has permanently changed the way I view the game Hot or Cold, so that’s something.

Rosemary’s Baby, 1968 (3/5). I’m sure this film was scary when it released, but fifty years of social progress render it positively maddening now. It’s fair to say that a great deal of what poor Rosemary goes through in this film would be avoided in a society where her husband did not have such control over her life, and you don’t need to be a critical scholar to understand that this woman is as much the victim of patriarchy as she is of Satan. Indeed, the film’s most frightening moment for me is where it touches upon the one thing that legitimately scares me as a thinking person: the very real power society has to label a sane person as insane, and the subsequent stripping of autonomy (and futility of protest) once one’s mind has been labeled unsound.

It Follows, 2014 (4/5). This movie was making many waves last year as an ostensibly revolutionary take on the genre. I won’t call it scary (though many will), but I do think the filmmakers have hit upon a nicely unsettling idea with the situation plaguing our protagonists. The dauntless pursuit slowly exhausting these unfortunate young people also begins to wear on the viewer — we’re seeking the same kind of escape that the characters are, and the more hopeless they become the more upset we’re wont to be as well. I was disappointed in the movie’s lowbrow moments, though I will say I was impressed by the fact that a movie based on hot coeds with (basically) evil STIs features so little in the way of titillation. It Follows didn’t scare me, but it was at least a good movie, and that’s more than I can often say about this genre.

The Omen, 1976 (4/5). I don’t usually want to slap the priests in movies, but I definitely wanted to slap this one. The guy shows up to warn the ambassador that his son is actually the antichrist, but he does it in the most cryptic and overdramatic way, more or less guaranteeing that he will not be listened to. And so in the back of my mind I spent the movie wondering how much could have been avoided if only he had not spoken in doomsday poetry but had chosen to use regular words and a tempered demeanor. This frustration was usurped by my inability to understand why you would not outright fire your governess if you discovered she was keeping an attack dog in your child’s room even after you explicitly demanded she remove it. That all said, The Omen is really less a horror movie than a supernatural mystery film with a horror veneer. If you can put off wondering how an ambassador has so much free time to go adventuring across southern Europe without so much as a word to any government official, it’s actually pretty fun. Also: much better use of child on tricycle than The Shining.

The Silence of the Lambs, 1991 (5/5). This is one of those movies that has reached nearly mythic status in the American consciousness (kind of like The Shining, come to think of it), but probably for the wrong reasons. I watched this film because I was watching horror films, but I don’t even think this classifies as horror. True, there are some pretty awful moments in the movie, but I have seen much worse in casual episodes of CSI and Criminal Minds. Strip away the shock value, however, and this is still a pretty riveting tale of two incredibly smart people in a bloody intellectual tango. Hopkins is the Joker if the Joker were a genius, and Foster plays both Harley Quinn and Batman, drawn to, repulsed by, but ultimately reliant on the evil on the other side of the glass.

I still have quite a few movies to go on this little self-scaring journey, including some of the grislier entries I’ve heretofore avoided (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Saw, Final Destination, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre are on the list). I’m still thinking that the horror genre’s titans are rooted less in terror than in disgust, but I guess we’ll see.

Set Your Watch & Warrant On It

It’s crazy to think that it has been — let me verify — almost three weeks since I last posted here* while sitting alone in a student union building 400 miles and a seeming lifetime away. The fire I spoke of hasn’t had a chance to erupt, but then the embers have heated rather than cooled, so this still isn’t exactly a story of failure.

The last few weeks saw me more or less focused on a single thing: the GRE. It actually got to the point where I no longer cared how I fared on the exam because even a complete bomb would be outweighed by the sheer relief of no longer bearing a doomsday clock over me every day. Despite all the people saying not to worry so much about the test, I couldn’t help but remember the words of one advisor who saw my performance as the true determiner of my eligibility for the funding I’m relying on. Those words still echo, still have me contemplating a retake. But I’m not ready to reset that clock. If another GRE is on my horizon, it’s at least a little bit distant, and will never resume its place in the forefront of my mind.

That space is now, as it were, available for rent, and that’s where this post (or, more accurately, the mental gymnastics I need to go through to articulate anything here) comes in. A month ago I promised something concrete. Not mere musings of a plan but something definite, something predictable, something to which I could be held accountable. That means more deadlines, it means measure of performance, but also productivity and a refusal to backslide like so many times in my past.

Admittedly, there is one complicating factor. The thing to which I must dedicate myself the most over the next couple months is the sort of thing not easily quantified or externally expressed: the grad school search. It will probably take me a week or two before I understand what that process looks like and how to streamline it in a way where goal-setting makes sense (i.e. “check x number of sites per day,” “contact x number of faculty per week,” etc.).

It’s worth noting (as I did to a friend the other day) that this is my first college search proper. I broke all the rules when it came to Grove City College: I didn’t look into the programs, the school’s reputation, the faculty, the job placement statistics, etc. I also didn’t look at any other schools. Not one. I read one brochure, visited one campus, applied early decision, got accepted, and attended for four years. In retrospect I am incredibly blessed. My failure to look at or apply to so much as a single other school means had GCC not taken me, I’d have been going to community college for at least a year. I can’t expect that sort of providence this time around, which means I’m starting from scratch at something most people have at least taken a trial go at once in their lives. Suffice it to say: if you’ve been through this process (particularly recently), I am very, very open to advice.

That said, I promised myself that coming home one last time would only make sense if I truly took advantage of the opportunity it afforded me to actually develop as, well, a real person, learning to shop on a budget, to cook for myself (or a family), to handle repairs and maintenance on things like my car. Perhaps my biggest challenge has been, and will continue to be, proper balance of leisure time. I am prone to excess and fixation, a reality both debilitating and ultimately untenable. There’s nothing wrong with, say, Borderlands 2, but there is something wrong with having played it for 26 hours in the past week (thanks, Raptr) at the exclusion of any other game, movie, book, or, say, going for a hike or (hello?) writing a blog or two.

The best way I can see of making myself diversify is if there is some external measure of success for others to see. If the only consequence of failure is letting myself down, then I’ll probably fail because, in the interest of honesty, I’m inured to that particular consequence. So, less because I think the world cares for my opinions and more because putting them out there forces me to have opinions, I am officially going to commit to the following:

  • 3 devotional posts per week (MWF)
    • EDIT (10/22 5:03 p.m. EST) – I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I don’t have nearly enough insight to warrant this one in particular. I am modifying this to be once per week, on Tuesdays, and I’m still not sure what I thought this would look like.
  • 1 album per week (published Mondays)
  • 1 photo-shoot per week (published Wednesdays)
  • 1 film per week (published Thursdays)
  • 2 books per month (published on the first and third Fridays)
  • 2 games per month (published on the second and fourth Fridays)
  • 1 game-culture post per week (published Sundays)

Now, I am also considering doing a weekly vlog. Those few of you unfortunate enough to have been subjected to my previous vlogging attempts will either be pleased (yay, schadenfreude time!) or petrified (oh god why please no) at the prospect. Still, I think it would benefit me greatly to develop the skills associated with the process, regardless of the level of success the finished products actually reach. Video editing and webcasting are huge and growing aspects of the Internet (particularly of the gaming community), and while I don’t have any plans to acquire streaming tech in the near future I think having a general working understanding of how to write for and produce a several minute video would be quite useful. If nothing else, it might improve my ability to achieve brevity.

Speaking of which, I haven’t done that today, and if you’re still reading I’d just like to thank you. If you’re actually looking forward to any of this, please let me know; historically, I tend to do better work when I believe other people care.

This publication process begins now, which means keep your eyes on (or, dare I say, subscribe to) Deus Ex Ludus for Sunday’s post. Monday I’ll post thoughts on anberlin’s new album, Vital.


*To be fair, I did write a fairly lengthy post on faith, games, and time travel last week.