Over the past decade, a number of video games have made the leap to the big screen, generally with disappointing results. Unfortunately, bringing a video game to life as a movie requires much more than translating game-play elements into live action, as a viable feature film also requires the depth of story and character to keep audiences interested. After the deplorable financial and critical achievements of such 'cinema classics' as "Super Mario Bros.", "Double Dragon", "Street Fighter", "Mortal Kombat: The Movie", and "Wing Commander", you would think that the video game genre would not only be dead, but also cremated and its ashes scattered to the wind. However, in the year 2001, it seems that the video game genre is very much alive, thanks to four new entries. "Pokemon 3: The Movie" bowed into theaters earlier this year, and was apparently the best of the series so far. The highly-anticipated all-CGI "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" opens in July, while the "Night of the Living Dead"-inspired "Resident Evil" arrives in the fourth quarter. Opening this week, however, is probably the hottest and most-hyped video game-to-movie property, "Tomb Raider".
Initially described as a 'John Woo film in a 3-D game', the video game "Tomb Raider" and its gun-toting heroine Lara Croft were the products of a 1995 brainstorming session at UK software developer Core Design. After the release of the first "Tomb Raider" game in 1996, Core Design quickly saw that it had a very hot property on its hands, and immediately began work on a sequel for the 1997 Christmas season.
Meanwhile, rock band U2, who were apparently big "Tomb Raider" fans, approached Core Design to have Lara Croft 'join' them on their Popmart tour. In no time, licensing and endorsement deals began to pour in, and pretty soon Lara Croft's shapely figure was adorning mainstream magazine covers, Sony's promotional materials for the PlayStation, soft drink containers, special issues of the "Witchblade" comic book, and her own line of action figures. As part of this feeding frenzy, Paramount Pictures acquired the rights for a "Tomb Raider" movie. Unfortunately (for Lara Croft fans, that is), it would be another four years before they could see their favorite kick-ass superheroine on the big screen, as "Tomb Raider" went through a number of script and director changes, until finally settling on director Simon West ("The General's Daughter") and his ideas for the script in 1999.
Now that the long delay for Lara Croft's fan-boys (and girls) to see their heroine in the flesh is finally over, was it worth the wait? Sadly to say, while "Tomb Raider" certainly fares better than such odious game-to-film efforts such as "Super Mario Bros." And "Street Fighter", it is a sluggishly paced film with threadbare story and characters, saved only by a few decent action sequences and the physicality of star Angelina Jolie ("Gone in 60 Seconds"). Alas, "Tomb Raider" n'est pas tres Jolie.
At the center of the film's story is an ancient artifact known as the Key of Time. When the planets align exactly and a lunar eclipse casts its shadow on a long-forgotten city, which only occurs once every 5000 years, whoever possesses the Key will be able to shuttle backwards and forwards through time. The secret society of the Illuminati are eager to get their hands on this artifact of almost limitless power, and they hire Manfred Powell (Iain Glen of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead") to retrieve it for them. Unfortunately, the Key of Time is broken in two pieces, whereabouts unknown, and there are only 7 days remaining until the next planetary alignment.
Meanwhile, at the palatial Croft estate, Lady Lara Croft (Jolie) uncovers the All-Seeing Eye in the things belonging to her late father, Lord Croft (Jon Voight, seen recently in "Pearl Harbor"), who has been 'lost in the field' for the past 16 years. With the All-Seeing Eye and her father's notes, Lara will be able to find the pieces and reassemble the Key of Time, perhaps giving her the opportunity to see her father one last time, in addition to keeping it out of the nefarious plans of the Illuminati. Unfortunately, Manfred is always one step ahead of her, thanks to the help of Lara's former colleague and lover, Alex Marrs (Daniel Craig of "Elizabeth"), another 'tomb raider'.
During the pre-production of "Tomb Raider", the biggest question was who would step into the shoes of the video game vixen.Core Designs had already used a number of models to portray Lara Croft for trade events and publicity shots, such as Rhona Mitra ("Get Carter"), Nell McAndrew, and Lucy Clarkson, and the names Sandra Bullock ("Miss Congeniality"), Elizabeth Hurley ("Bedazzled"), Catherine Zeta-Jones ("Traffic"), and Heather Graham ("Say It Isn't So") had been thrown around as potential actresses. In the end, West settled on Jolie, a decision that was wholeheartedly embraced by "Tomb Raider" fans. To Jolie's credit, her portrayal of Lara Croft works, capturing the brooding good looks, irreverent charm, and athleticism that one would expect from such a tomb-raiding beauty.
With that said, it is too bad that the rest of "Tomb Raider" is so mediocre. The script is merely a flimsy clothesline on which to hang the film's four big action set pieces, which would be similar to 'levels' within a game. In addition, the film is populated by a number of one-note characters that say rather banal things (including a number of lame one-liners), and as a result, there is very little suspense, intrigue, or emotion as the globetrotting story unfolds. Though the script does try to infuse some emotional depth into Lara's character by having her deal with the loss of her father, this is reduced to a few token scenes that seem incongruous to the comic book action around them.
However, the film does offer two worthwhile action sequences. The first is when Manfred's well-armed goons bust into Lara's mansion, resulting in a gun battle where Lara must take out her foes while suspended from the ceiling via bungee cables. The second takes place in Cambodia, where Lara and Manfred's men must fight off stone statues that magically come to life. West, who cut his teeth in the action genre with "Con Air", does a respectable job in capturing the action, though he has a tendency to frame his shots too tightly and use quick cuts, which can sometimes make the on-screen action rather confusing. Unfortunately, to get to these high-octane sequences, you must sit through quite a bit of plodding exposition from uninteresting characters.
It seems that the video-game-to-silver-screen curse has struck yet again. While this affliction is not completely fatal in the case of "Tomb Raider", it may as well be. "Tomb Raider" may benefit from some decent action sequences and the star power of Angelina Jolie, but the shallow script and dull characters end up turning this hot video game property into a... numbing video game.