Still Raidin’ After All These Years: Tomb Raider Movies in 2001 and 2018

A new Tomb Raider movie is opening this weekend. It won’t be the last, and not because it’s destined to produce sequel after sequel; it won’t be the last because if this version of Tomb Raider doesn’t work, wait five or ten or fifteen years, and someone will try again. That there is a 2018 Tomb Raider starring Alicia Vikander feels, in some ways, like an act of almost religious faith in brand names; the original movie series, based on the popular video game series, starred Angelina Jolie not long after she won an Oscar, started off with one of the biggest domestic grosses ever for a videogame-based movie, and still couldn’t make it past an ill-regarded, poorly performing second installment. For a big hit movie featuring a star who remains globally famous playing a character who remains popular, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is amazingly forgettable and amazingly mostly forgotten. It’s also entirely emblematic of its early-aughts time period in a way that, too, has been forgotten.

I don’t think it’s entirely the tarnishing of teenage ideals that makes me think of the summer of 2001 as the first Bad Summer. Granted, there were plenty of bad summer movies before 2001, and on the other side, three of the year’s best movies – A.I., Moulin Rouge!, and Ghost World – came out that summer, two from major studios. But compared with, say, the varied offerings of summer 1998 (which included, yes, two asteroid-peril movies, but also Saving Private Ryan, The Truman Show, Out of Sight, The Mask of Zorro, and There’s Something About Mary) or 1999 (which included, yes, hotly anticipated Star Wars and Austin Powers installments, but also The Sixth Sense, Bowfinger, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut, American Pie, and several hit rom-coms), or even the more typical crop in 2000 (Mission: Impossible II, Gladiator, A Perfect Storm, What Lies Beneath, Gone in 60 Seconds, X-Men), 2001 leaned heavily on sequels and adaptations of well-known properties. Many of them were hits, but the collective goodwill of Rush Hour 2, The Mummy Returns, Jurassic Park III, American Pie 2, Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, and, yes, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider does not appear to add up to much today (and that’s not even getting into how that year’s equivalent of Saving Private Ryan or Titanic was supposed to be Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor).

Yet this lineup also more closely resembles summers of more recent vintage, in style if not necessarily quality. Summer used to mean two or three big sequels. In the summer seasons of 1998, 1999, and 2000, a total of five sequels and five high-profile remakes or adaptations made over $100 million at the box office. In summer 2001 alone, six sequels and two more high-profile remakes/adaptations hit that mark. (Shrek, adapted from a well-liked but not hugely famous children’s book, and The Fast and the Furious, ripped off from Point Break with a different secondhand title, were two of the season’s big “originals,” and they both became billion-dollar franchises.) A dozen more such movies – mostly sequels – are due out in summer 2018.

It’s no surprise, then, that amidst the flood of sequels, remakes, and comic book adaptations that followed, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider did not make much of a mark, artistically speaking. Though it received mostly negative reviews upon its June 2001 release, it’s not exactly a terrible movie. Con Air’s Simon West directs it with a generic music-video “style” that looks more coherent in 2018 than it did in its own time. He fails to give the action any physical or emotional weight, leaving it only with the heft of its ridiculousness and the wattage of the vaguely smug but endearing smiles that run across Angelina Jolie’s face in a few stray moments of quasi-peril. There’s a menacing council, a clock ticking toward a “planetary alignment,” giant robots, the Illuminati, and cut-rate Indiana Jones heroics, all of little consequence even in the realm of summer movies. It’s too sanitized for sex, but sexualized enough for Lara to take a shower within the first 10 minutes. It doesn’t provide any big laughs or even many visceral thrills.

What the movie does is divert — create the temporary feeling, abetted at the time by a big star, a big screen and the designated summer movie season, that its audience has just seen a big-budget action spectacular. This makes it something of a simulation, a quality that could be fairly chalked up to its video game roots. But I think it goes beyond the source material. What is Jurassic Park III if not a rough-and-tumble simulation of what a Jurassic Park movie should be? And what is 2015’s Jurassic World if not a more tricked-out, impressively staged simulation updated for the passage of time? Lara Croft: Tomb Raider wasn’t the first blockbuster to operate with this kind of hollow fanfare, and it certainly wasn’t the last. But there was something ironically fresh about the way it managed to feel like a sequel to itself before the franchise even got off the ground.

It’s so synthetic that when Jan De Bont took over for the 2003 follow-up Cradle of Life, his marginally more substantial directorial chops didn’t make a goddamn bit of difference. If anything, the warmer-looking, more serious, slightly less trend-chasing (no scenes of Ms. Croft bumping “Lara’s Party Mix,” featuring electronica from the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider soundtrack album), somewhat more Indiana Jones-y Cradle of Life is somehow worse than the first movie just by virtue of it not feeling novel. This, too, might have to do with timing. In 2003, it was one of about a dozen high-profile sequels, a chilling realization of the promises made a couple of years earlier. Yes, there would be sequel breakouts like X2 and beloved first chapters like the original Pirates of the Caribbean, but it was also the year that Terminator 3 portended years of sequels for a franchise fresh out of ideas, that Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle tried to turn the fluky success of the first movie into a sustained trick, that The Matrix Reloaded made a bunch of people reconsider whether they really wanted a Matrix sequel at all (despite Reloaded being kind of awesome). Who had room for more Lara Croft in that environment? Tomb Raider may have only gotten one sequel, but in a way, the indifferently received likes of Van Helsing, I, Robot, and Fantastic Four were all its spiritual children.

So where does that leave a 2018 version of Tomb Raider? Surprisingly, it leaves it… pretty good, not least because some franchise filmmaking is more assured than it was in the sequel rush of 2001 (in 2018, there aren’t fewer sequels or reboots–if anything, there are more–but fewer of them feel as hastily slapped together, maybe because resources that once would have gone to stand-alone thrillers, dramas, and the like have been diverted over to the circus). Alicia Vikander continues the odd tradition that globe-trotting treasure hunter Lara Croft be played by a recent Best Supporting Actress winner sporting a fake British accent, but her Lara is scrappier, with flashes of arrogance that seem a little more hapless than the amusingly self-satisfied Jolie version. The movie tries to back away from Lara’s manor-born poshness, joining her trying to scrape together enough money to pay for her boxing-gym membership and working as a bike courier. Yes, this is an origin story, something that was not quite so obligatory back in 2001, where Lara was already flipping through de facto case files that may or may not have involved tombs.

In fact, Tomb Raider ’18 has the original tomb, a secret office in the Croft family mausoleum, which Lara discovers thanks to a clue from her still-departed daddy. The company lawyers and advisors think the years since his disappearance constitute enough elapsed time for Lara to sign the papers declaring him dead (and declaring her a multimillionaire). But instead, Lara goes off to a mysterious uncharted island in search of what happened to her dad. Don’t worry; there’s a tomb on the island, too. (Offhand, I’m pretty sure two tombs is substantially more than we get in either of the previous Tomb Raider adventures.)

So yeah, in some ways this feels very 2018, making a darker, grittier, more grounded Lara Croft who doesn’t fight robots for training or have a staff of nerds to fix her training robots or even avail herself to her family fortune. But while the darker/grittier reboot has certainly become a marketing cliché, it also lends this Tomb Raider a physical gravity that the other movies lacked. Vikander makes more of a likable action figure than a rich character, and to be sure, the movie’s daddy-issue plot is standard issue and never particularly affecting. But as a simple action-adventure movie, Tomb Raider works.

Director Roar Uthaug previously directed the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave, which had a little more character than those of the Bay/Bruckheimer variety but was still pretty clearly a Hollywood audition reel. His set pieces here are simple and reasonably accomplished: an early bike chase through city streets, Lara’s drawn-out struggle to avoid going over a waterfall, some choice archery. He cuts quickly but coherently, and sometimes has the sense not to cut at all: When Lara sneaks into the island work camp run by the nefarious Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, underplaying both admirably and disappointingly), Uthaug stages the action in a couple of Spielberg-style oners, where the point is to draw the audience into a fluid course of action, rather than wow them with the length of the take.

The movie doesn’t add up to much, but it’s well-shot and intermittently exciting, appropriately scaled to its off-season-summer-movie release date. It’s better than it strictly needs to be, which describes a fair amount of franchise filmmaking these days. Some summer and faux-summer entertainment is as unnecessary, erratic, and leadfooted as its worst 2000s counterparts (they’re still making Terminator movies no one wants, after all), yet I’m not sure the batting average is much worse than it was 15 years ago so much as their productions, however steady, have become numbing. The new Tomb Raider is emblematic of the craft that can go into something that remains pretty inconsequential even on a popcorn level—and of the useless appendages affixed to the end of a perfectly decent little action-adventure picture.

And so, Tomb Raider ’18 must end by teasing the prospect of further sequels, not in a James Bond or Indiana Jones sort of way, but with tedious, half-baked mythology about a shadowy organization and some shameless milking of what the movie imagines to be iconography (next movie, Lara Croft will, get this… have two guns! Like in the game!). It amounts to about five minutes of eye-rolling set-up, but even five minutes of that can still hurt your eyes — and this is coming from someone who would be perfectly happy to watch Vikander do some more jungle-sprinting, kickboxing, and grave-robbing. At its best, this Tomb Raider evokes (however faintly) the kind of meat-and-potatoes action thriller you might get from non-Bay Jerry Bruckheimer, or mid-period Harrison Ford, or current-day Tom Cruise, with a woman taking the no-fuss leading role. For all I know, some gaming enthusiasts may find it disappointing, like it’s trying to out-class its source material. But I know I was a lot happier with it when it seemed like a modest island adventure story than when it started teeing up some trilogy or quadrilogy or sextet that won’t ever get made.

The 2001 Tomb Raider is a simulation through and through. It doesn’t tease a vast mythology because it seems to understand, on some level, that anyone who wants more will just keep mashing the buttons. Contemporary blockbusters have, to some degree, stepped back from that abyss, where mediocre movies with a mediocre reception beget mediocre sequels, but now they reach over your shoulder to mash the buttons for you, excitedly telling you to check out this awesome cut-scene that sets up the next thing. The 2018 Tomb Raider tries its best to be a real movie, mostly succeeds, and then expects you to get excited, rather than deflated, that maybe it was just a warm-up.