REVIEW: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Rich socialite Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) spends her time travelling the world, breaking into ancient ruins and temples and stealing the valuable artifacts and relics within. When a mysterious hidden clock in Croft Manor starts ticking again – and ticking backwards, she finds herself in competition with the villainous Manfred Powell (Iain Glen) and fellow adventurer Alex West (Daniel Craig) to find the fabled Triangle of Light.

Videogame-to-film adaptations come with a reputation for poor quality, one honestly established by the one-two punch of Super Mario Bros (1993) and Street Fighter: The Movie (1994) – both genuinely terrible films. Other film adaptations have by-and-large been commercial and critical failures, but with some merit buried among the trash. There is always something in these films worthy of praise – a specific scene here, a bit of production design there – so that even if the film is not precisely good it is almost always at least interesting in some respect. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider fits this description to a T. It is not a great film, but it contains more than a few entertaining bits. It struggles to hold itself together and squanders its potential, but every few minutes there is something that pleases. There is not much that is actively awful, but plenty that’s mediocre. Essentially, this is a perfect film for a Sunday afternoon and a forgiving mood.

Despite the shortfalls of the script, Jolie visibly puts in a lot of effort to play Lara Croft. She offers the physicality the role demands, nails a solid English accent, and pulls in turn as much humour and gravitas as she can get from the stereotypical narrative and ordinary dialogue. Everybody else, to be completely honest, is effectively coasting – there really is not a need for them to do anything further. To an extent that means much of the cast is wasted: Iain Glen, Daniel Craig, and Jon Voight all deserve much better than what they get. On the other hand it is debatable how much they all need to do. This is a film with low ambition, to be honest, and while the ingredients are there to make something innovative and exciting director Simon West simply is not that interested.

That is frustrating, because we know that he is capable of better. His 1997 action film Con Air is busy, loud, and ridiculously over-the-top, and if a modicum of that film’s energy and self-awareness had been applied here Tomb Raider would have popped off the screen. Instead it feels pedestrian. It sits beneath the shadow of Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, still very much the high water mark of archaeological adventure. Every film of this kind sits there by default. For a film like Stephen Sommer’s The Mummy (1999), which pre-dates Tomb Raider by two years, the solution was to stay well within the limits of Raider’s shadow and play heavily on nostalgia. In the case of Tomb Raider, there is admittedly a clear desire to step beyond the shadow and offer something aggressively new. The problem is that no one on the production seems to have a valid idea of what that ‘new’ element is. The film is set in the present day, for sure, but it’s still in a ruined temple within half an hour or so fighting the supernatural.

There was potential in a Lara Croft film back when Tomb Raider was released. There is still potential for one now, as proved by Roar Uthuag’s profitable 2018 reboot. There is something loosely watchable about West’s effort – in some scenes that rises to genuinely enjoyable. Those scenes are a little too few, and do not come around often enough. I want to adore the film, but the bottom line is that it is simply not good.

2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

  1. I’d forgotten the clock that runs backwards, but it’s an excellent metaphor for the film, which starts off with its most exciting action scene but goes fairly steadily downhill from there. I *haven’t* forgotten the interview with West in which he boasts that it’s going to be the first “post-content movie”, which I think sums up the script pretty well. Are you going to review the sequel?

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