Lost in Translation? – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Welcome to Lost in Translation? – the Ready Up series where we look at the rocky two-way road of media adapted from video games and games based on films and TV shows, in a bid to decide whether the juice was worth the squeeze, or if what made the source material great in the first place got lost in translation.

For this installment of LIT? we’re casting our gaze back towards the silver screen as we take a look at what was formerly the most financially successful game-to-film adaptation so far, surpassed only in 2010 by both Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Resident Evil: Afterlife.

Released in 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was directed by Simon West, director of the cheesy classic Con Air and starred Angelina Jolie as the titular raider of tombs, then best known for her roles in The Bone Collector, Gone in 60 Seconds and Girl, Interrupted for which she won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

At the time of the film’s release, five Tomb Raider games had been released, with 2000’s Tomb Raider Chronicles the latest in the series of third-person action adventure platformers. In each game, generally players were tasked with navigating their way through trap-filled levels, solving environmental puzzles to aid their progress and slaughtering just about anything that moved with Lara’s trademark twin pistols, all in the name of acquiring the object of her desire – usually some form of ancient artifact or piece of treasure.

While not based on any one of Lara’s videogame adventures, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider tells the tale of Lara’s efforts to stop an ancient order (the Illuminati) from acquiring “the ultimate power”. This is achieved by first finding two pieces of the Triangle of Light, an ancient artifact that, once reassembled at the exact moment of a once-in-5000-years planetary alignment, allows the holder control over time…to a degree, at any rate.

What it got right

In all honesty, even after more than a decade, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider isn’t all that bad, much in the same way as cold pizza can still be satisfying – you know what you’re experiencing isn’t the best there is, but it fills a hole. One key ingredient to the film’s success (the cheese, perhaps, if we’re still going to flog that cold pizza analogy) is Angelina Jolie, who is never less than watchable throughout the film’s runtime. Without wanting to sound like a gushing fanboy, it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling Lara’s boots – Jolie looks the part and, thanks to months of training (so says the DVD’s special features) seems to have some decent action chops too, with the film not needing too many cuts to obvious stunt doubles.

Where the film really succeeds as an adaptation though is in capturing the essence of a Tomb Raider plot and its iconography, shallow as such things may be. Lara’s globe-trotting adventure finds her actually raiding a couple of tombs, which at the time seemed like a distant memory to some gamers (with Lara’s digital adventures at the time seemingly doing everything they could to avoid tombs of any nature). As with the first game in the series, here we see Lara gradually piecing together an ancient powerful relic which holds the key to a deeper mystery, all while wielding those twin pistols and surviving one or two perils along the way.

What it got wrong

So while Lara Croft: Tomb Raider nailed the tone of a Tomb Raider game, its adherence to said tone is one flaw with the film. The Tomb Raider games up until then had only ever told perfunctory stories, acting as context for the next level rather than serving as a compelling piece of interactive fiction. While later Tomb Raider games have clearly strived to address this complaint, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider remains a shallow tale, with Lara undergoing little to no character development over the course of the movie, giving audiences little to relate to or, indeed, care about. After all, watching a character develop and work through whatever it is that is holding them back in some way, usually with some difficulty, brings us to relate to the character and makes us interested in their success.

Where the film falls short in my eyes as an adaptation is in failing to capture the player’s experience of Tomb Raider, namely the thrill of exploration and the struggle to overcome the many challenges faced on the route to eventual success. The cinematic Lara is invincible and infallible; her manner more like playing the game with cheats on rather than the delicate avatar the player controls in the game. I’m not saying I want to see the film Lara die several times and restart at a checkpoint, but her success shouldn’t seem so guaranteed, or so easily won. Lara’s adventure seems to be one of relative ease, and without any struggle to succeed, the end result feels overly predictable and lacking in any sense of triumph.

The Verdict

Watched as the popcorn flick it was always meant to be, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a perfectly acceptable way to spend 90 minutes. It’s adherence to the game’s values make this a solid translation and while it’s no classic, it stands tall as one of the better game-to-film adaptations made thus far. A good, but not great, action movie.


One response to “Lost in Translation? – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”

  1. blindmonkey avatar

    You’ve kind of hit the nail on the head here. It’s probably one of the closest films to game adaptations in terms of ticking off the list of distinguishing features. But it’s a rubbish adventure story with forgettable by-the-numbers action scenes and awful scripting. Compared to its cinematic equivalents it falls far short of the Indiana Jones films or even the lesser Kings Solomon’s Mines and Romancing The Stones of the world.

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