23 July 2001

Shampoo and sand

Tomb Raider, the film

The most disturbing moment in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider comes when Lara (Angelina Jolie) is sitting in her mansion and her annoying comedy butler (Chris Barrie) produces a tomb-raiding itinerary. “Egypt?” she asks listlessly on surveying the papers. “It’s all pyramids and sand…” It is a brave line to situate a third of the way into a wannabe blockbuster: if Lara herself is bored of raiding tombs, why exactly should we care?

Plotwise, Tomb Raider is a rotting corpse sewn together from the gangrenous limbs of Indiana Jones movies. There exists, if you will, a magic stone triangle split into two hidden halves, which gives the holder power over time. An evil member of the Illuminati, Manfred Powell QC (Iain Glen) wants the triangle for nefarious purposes. Since he is a sucessful barrister, Powell operates out of an opulent, gold-and-rose-hued harem, where he hires another mercenary archaeologist, Alex Cross (Daniel Craig), to recover the pieces for him. Lara, of course, wants to stop them, because she wants to use the triangle herself to get in touch with her dead dad (Jon Voight), whom she sees in dreams.

The kindest thing there is to say about this farrago is that Jolie herself never looks less than wonderful – whether in a fetchingly skintight lilac jumpsuit for those chilly Arctic mornings, or gauzy white linen pyjamas, or the black hotpants-and-vest combo familiar from the Tomb Raider games. A stray strand of hair always escapes from her plaited ponytail to fall prettily over her face. She even makes a highly creditable stab at Gordonstoun vowels. Yet it is all to no avail. Director and co-screenwriter Simon West has concocted a film of such brutal contempt for its audience that it has less narrative interest than your average 30-second shampoo commercial. In fact, a teasing scene of Jolie in the shower actually is a shampoo commercial in everything but name. Meanwhile, the risibly perfunctory way in which the plot hauls itself from one end of the world to another is a disgrace to the idea of sequential videogame “levels”, which these days boast far more interesting linking stories.

The main problem, if we are meant to consume this as exciting cinema, is that Lara never appears to be in real danger. And if there are no serious obstacles, there can be no true triumph. The Lara of the videogames regularly dies before our eyes, jerking about underwater as she drowns or collapsing, spurting blood, after falling into a spike-filled pit. In the film, however, Jolie is a priori invincible, no matter how many enemies are spraying machine-gun bullets in her direction. It is not surprising, then, that like Roger Moore’s Bond, her only concession to displaying fear, satisfaction or any other emotion is one raised eyebrow.

Had this been an entirely computer-generated film, like the amusing Lucozade adverts, it would have avoided another problem. While in the Tomb Raider games, a Tyrannosaurus rex looks just as “realistic” as Lara herself does, there is still a gulf in believable weight and texture between real people on celluloid and computer graphics. The problem is exacerbated in this movie because the graphical effects are so bizarrely bad: when a giant six-armed sword-wielding Vishnu comes to life in a Cambodian temple, we first think that we have seen this in an old Sinbad movie, and then we realise that Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion creatures were far more believable as solid enemies. That Vishnu, by the way, turns out to be remarkably easy to kill, as are his hordes of rubbish stone monkey monsters, who can be dispatched with a swinging sword, a kick or even a punch. Just breathe on them, it seems, and they’ll crumble obligingly into dust.

It seems to have become de rigueur in recent Hollywood adventure pictures to construct action scenes entirely in the editing room, rather than letting the camera shoot properly choreographed action in the first place. In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for example, visceral excitement in the arena is gained by fast cutting between extreme close-ups, and the stroboscopic effect of dropped frames and clanging steel. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider knows nothing but this kind of impressionistic approach to action, preferring to pull a fast one on the viewer’s senses rather than convincing us of a real narrative of combat or evasion occurring in space.

Because Lara Croft the virtual character is essentially a dynamic personality – she rarely speaks, and instead expresses character through graceful and intelligent movement through spectacular spaces – the incoherence of the film’s action sequences leave an obvious, gaping void where Croft’s real essence should be. Even the best sequence of the film, in which Jolie performs a kind of bungee-jumping ballet in her hall and is then surprised by gun-toting terrorists, fails to capitalise on its potential beauty. Actions are disjointed and confused, and the unarmed Lara does not even bother to pick up weapons from the enemies she knocks out.

As the film has abandoned the notion of a Lara with brains as well as beauty – the sledgehammer action never stops long enough to show us Lara thinking her way out of a situation – the sole intriguing aspect of characterisation here lies in the way Jolie gives a little pseudo-sexual moan (sometimes it’s almost an “Aha!”; other times more of an “Mmmm”) either when a situation is about to turn violent, or when she has just whupped some bad ass. The idea that a real-life Lara would suffer from a kind of ruthless psychopathology in which violence is her only sexual outlet is the film’s most interesting facet, and one that has a great lineage in post-Freudian cinema. Sadly, the film betrays its own one good idea by implying that Lara used to have a sexual relationship with her rival tomb raider.

At the end of the preview I saw, a man behind me asked his friend: “So, headache or hard-on?” “Oh, hard-on, definitely,” the second man enthused. As I began to consider the virtues of applying this scoring system to a film by, say, Hitchcock or Eisenstein, my temples began to throb, slowly.