Where’s the Archaeology in Tomb Raider?

22 Mar

By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)

  • Spoiler Alert

Tomb Raider is one of those franchise universes I loved playing and following because of the locations. From lost catacombs in Peru to Egypt, China to Greece, Cambodia and back to Egypt, the original games went to a whole ton of places where I happily followed along. The films took her to Cambodia, Italy, Greece and Africa. The reboot stuck to a jungle island in the Devil’s Sea (off Japan) and the followup went to remote parts of Russia. Both were very enjoyable plays, but I missed the crazy fantastique from the early games.

The original movies and games, to which longtime fans will recall, had Lara Croft globetrotting to picturesque ancient worlds to deal with ancient evils. If she was not the figure digging for the truth, either her allies or enemies were. However cheesy these films were, those movies belonged in the so bad it’s good category. When Angelina Jolie declined to reprise her role for a third film, the time was ripe to start the games anew. Of course, that meant the movie universe needs to follow suit.

This version of Lara (Alicia Vikander) has no archaeological training. She’s a young lady on the run not only from her past but also her future. She’s a spunky lass with no proper future in sight; she has daddy issues. This part of the plot defines the core of the film and narrative-wise, this re-imaging is off to a good start.

Young Miss Croft is off to find her father. The clues he left behind suggests he’s still alive. She knows something about the ancient figure he was looking for, and she is unfazed by the danger ahead, should this sorceress queen be real. Historically, Himiko practiced shamanism; she was a seer to her people. The legacy she left behind is of the fact the Chinese regarded her as the ruler of Japan circa 3rd Century CE. The fact she never married added to her mystique. She was a symbol of power. She may be like Hatshepsut from Egypt. Though she never led mighty armies to carve an empire, the devotion from her people showed she was highly regarded. This back history did not stop the writers from intensifying the mystery of where and who was part of her entombment. 1000 handmaidens were buried alongside and many feared her control over life and death can continue if she is unleashed from her grave.

With this detail fully explained in the introduction, the wait for why it is important does not happen until much later in this film.

No movie with Tomb on the title would be complete without someone attempting to break into a mausoleum. The archaeological adventure is a footnote in this film. The larger story is about Lara meeting a strange group of grave robbers. When she realizes they are after this magical treasure like Hitler needed it, she has a purpose. However, she needed them to explain why unearthing Himiko is important.

The latter was a letdown. Two-thirds of this movie wants to be like Indiana Jones and it fails to recreate Spielberg’s magic. This version of Lara sees her tossed into the frying pan without a whip. She does not even have her trademark weapons yet. This work is simply the setup for better adventures to come. Her rival Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) is vaguely interesting, but he is not likely to appear again. His departure will leave Lara trying to figure out the grandest puzzle of them all, who runs this secret organization known as Trinity?

This movie does have a companion to help Lara out. Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) tries to fit into those shoes, and I like to know more about this character. For now, he’s a drunken sailor whom Lara paid off to help.

With this film, I thought I was watching moments from Uncharted instead of the Tomb Raider. The old games and original two movies defined a lot about what I enjoyed. At the same time, I was even reminded of Oliver Queen’s time on Lian Wu in CW’s Arrow. Her adventure here is to learn how to deal with the concrete jungle terrors of the real world.

This franchise is built on Lara solving tough puzzles and she does not get to do much of that with this film. This iteration of the character defines her as a street punk tossed into the action than that of a Cambridge scholar (or Rachel Weisz from The Mummy (1999-2008) trilogy) who at least knows what they are facing. While the setup puts The Mummy (2017) to shame, this iteration at least does the legend justice when Lara said all mythology has a basis in the real world. She manages to understand the writing on the wall.

I will see the second film if it comes out. However, I have my doubts it will be immediately coming. This movie needs to make back its budget if it’s to continue, and no unearthing of money from extra investors can save this work from a terrible fate worse than death. Perhaps some movie universes are best left buried.

2½ Stars out of 5

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