I've been playing computer games for about as long as my thumbs could twitch, and I can recall only a single instance in which I felt genuinely embarrassed by my hobby. About a year ago, I was browsing the shelves at one of Mad Town's fine software purveyors when I overheard a teenage Beavis wannabe heh-hehing to the store clerk about the legendary (and, I'm happy to say, imaginary) cheat codes that would cause the clothes of Lara Croft, the buxom star of the Tomb Raider games, to disappear.
Such is the dubious legacy that leads us to Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, an action-adventure movie based on a series of ho-hum yet hugely successful computer games. Actually, the legacy is even greater, encompassing a long line of miserable movies based on videogames: Wing Commander, Super Mario Brothers and Street Fighter, just to single out three of the worst. Tomb Raider stands far above this forgettable group. I guess you can call that a compliment, but it's really not saying much.
Angelina Jolie is the actress chosen to bring Lara's pixels to life. Just as in the games, Lady Croft is an upper-crust adventurer with a deadly aim and a penchant for tight-fitting outfits. And just as in the games, she quickly finds herself in the middle of an Artifact Hunt. In this case, she's racing to find the broken pieces of a magical triangle that gives its wielder the power to control time. A shadowy society called the Illuminati wants it too, and they've hired an oily villain (Iain Glenn) and Lara's ex (Daniel Craig) to get it for them.
The catch ' there's always a catch, isn't there? ' is that the pieces must be reunited during the brief instant when all nine planets drift into alignment. This happy confluence, it seems, occurs just once each 5,000 years, a fact the script reminds us of, oh, about 5,000 times. (The script also has its characters frequently say "You're the Tomb Raider" in the same manner as they might say "You da man.")
It's not exactly Shakespeare, but that's no surprise. Despite their designers' best efforts, videogames have yet to attain the status of high art. Most of them are, like this movie, conceived as nothing more than diverting fun. Given that, it's okay that the film routinely thumbs its nose at logic and sense, especially given its visual spectacle. What's unforgivable is that it's also terribly boring.
The lion's share of the blame falls to director Simon West, the guy who dumped the odious The General's Daughter on us a few years back. West treats his camera like a hummingbird on crack. Thus, a perfectly good bungee-cord ballet in which Lara speeds around the walls of her conservatory, blasting SWAT-team baddies, is reduced to a convoluted mess. It's impossible to tell whether Lara's winning, losing or spinning her wheels, let alone appreciate the supposed grandeur of her stunts. Later in the sequence, she clocks a goon upside the head with the back tire of her moving motorcycle, and it's one of about three lucid action moments in the film.
Give West credit for making an attempt to capture the approach of the source material. You've got your hordes of disposable enemies, your boss monster (a fug-ugly, six-armed Shivan colossus) and your jumping puzzle. Gamers might actually appreciate these touches ' that is, if they had any reason to care.
Contextual suspense, a sense that any of what's happening on the screen matters at all, is maddeningly MIA. Like everyone else in the film, the Illuminati want to nab the artifact so they can control time, but they're a little vague in the global-threat department. If they get it, what exactly do they plan to do? Jump back to last Thursday to catch that 13-hour sale at Marshall Fields? Without something more specific to worry about, we're stuck on a tour of exotic locales (Venice, Cambodia and an arctic wasteland), interrupted by an all-too-occasional gunfight.
At least we're given an idea as to why Lara's interested: She misses her dear old dad, Lord Croft (Jolie's real-life padre, Jon Voight), "lost in the field," or so his austere gravestone reads. Lara's Freudian father issues are about the only depth she's granted by the script, and even these are only explored in flashbacks between father and daughter. Like her pixellated counterpart, Lara Croft remains a cipher.
Neither James Bond nor Indiana Jones had much of a backstory either, and yet both managed to emerge as compelling characters. Maybe it's a guy thing. Maybe it's a source-material thing ' Lara is, after all, based on a computer-generated image. I say it's a script thing, and that's too bad.
None of this reflects badly on Jolie, whose tough-girl sensuality makes her just about perfect for the role. (If you can believe it, Sandra Bullock was also once in the running.)
Lara blasted through her competition on opening weekend, and has probably already stolen enough cash at the box office to allow the film franchise to make like the computer game and spawn sequels. Here's hoping they come up with better material.