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.

Film: Abraham Lincoln – Vampire Hunter

Every so often a film comes along that challenges the conventional views of history, seeking to convey “the other side” of what happened, forcing viewers to consider what is meant by the old maxim, “history is written by the victors” and compelling them to reevaluate what they believe.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is no such film.

ALVH is the tale of good old Honest Abe’s life, more or less from cradle to grave, and the forces that truly shaped him into the man that would come to be known primarily for breaking chains and “preserving” the unity of the States of America.

Despite the ethical nuances of the actual epoch, the South’s role here is sheer stock villainy: ambition without morality, evil without conscience. Vampires are a convenient and thinly veiled representation of something relentlessly bad and in need of (permanent) death, and little effort is made to actually explore true Confederate motivations.

The thirty seconds or so of slave-whipping that open the film are the only insight into American slavery we are given, which would be fine were it not for the fact that the movie’s central motif (if you can call something so sloppily developed a motif) is freedom versus slavery. Rather than responsibly explore this theme and cause viewers to truly empathize with the conflict, the makers of ALVH instead tell us “See him? He’s the bad guy. Root against him!” and then the question is dropped, never to be raised again. I guess Southern’s the new Nazi.

The nonchalance with which morality is dealt in the film is frankly saddening. The central conflict is predicated on the idea that the entire empire of slavery in the antebellum South was founded by vampires as a ruse for keeping themselves well-fed, and no doubt the potential for subtle, clever metaphor is here: empowered, wealthy, white Europeans surviving off the blood of the enslaved.

But nothing about this movie is subtle. It is blunt, blundering, and borderline pretentious. It feels as if two relatively baked teenagers were out toking in a log cabin and one of them said “DUDE! What if, like, Abe Lincoln cut vampires’ heads off with an ax that was also a gun and stuff?!” and his friend was like “WICKED!” and then they went ahead and made that movie, without really considering whether the historical details could fit or whether that was the kind of idea you could stretch over two hours without losing an audience.

Alas, with its driving force stretched so thinly, no act seems to carry any real weight. The ones that might have are so predictable that by the time the film gets to the reveal you’ve just been sitting there tapping your foot impatiently waiting for it to arrive. Meanwhile, everything is so hopelessly melodramatic that it’s difficult to tell whether the acting or the writing is more at fault. You’re unlikely to experience any of the emotions the makers of this film seem to have hoped for you to experience; if you do, it certainly won’t be at the time they intended for you to feel them.

Before watching this film, I happened to comment to my father that I hoped it would be entertaining, at which point he asked if it was a comedy. I told him “it has to be, because taking a premise like this seriously would be ludicrous.” And yet after viewing I’m not quite sure it was meant to be a comedy. I never really felt like I was supposed to be laughing at the times I found myself doing so. Elsewhere came that awkward stomach drop one experiences when a person you feel bad for has just told an absolute bomb of a joke and it took you all a moment to realize it had been meant to amuse in the first place.

Stylistically, I think my father put it best: “It’s like The Matrix meets Twilight.” Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s like The Matrix Revolutions meets New Moon. Painfully dull conversations fill the moments in between a ton of slow-motion/quick-cut-editing of rather awful CG and green-screening scenes meant to pass for action. At some point you’re struck by the realization that not only did the filmmakers think “this is awesome!” but they expected you to agree with them.

To be fair, no one will see this movie expecting it to be brilliant. The aforementioned self-awareness comes with the pretty obvious caveat that we’re aiming for low-hanging fruit here. Still, what we have in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a case of identity crisis, a movie too ridiculous to be serious but too serious to be truly ridiculous. If meant as a joke, it’s not nearly funny enough; if not, it’s far too laughable. I don’t know for sure what these filmmakers were aiming to accomplish, but I feel comfortable in saying they failed to do so.

Final Word: The trailer for this movie is about as good as it gets. Watch that if you must, and then if you’re still jonesing for a vampire flick this week, skip ALVH and rent Twilight. You’ll regret it less.