(Welcome to Movie Mixtape, where we find cinematic relatives and seek out interesting connections between new releases and older movies that allow us to rethink and enjoy what’s in our theaters as well as the favorites on our shelf. In this edition: Tomb Raider.)
The new Tomb Raider is a fascinating cultural artifact when you think too long about it.
For one, it’s an attempt at reviving a commercially successful franchise that was laughed out of theaters twice in the early 2000s, with Angelina Jolie (in the first chapter of her conversion from dramatic riot grrl to action star) declining to continue in the lead role. The hodge podge of production companies behind both movies decided not to move forward with out her but now, 15 years later, a different mix of production companies have recast the iconic adventurer with Alicia Vikander (in the first chapter of her conversion from creepy robot and period dramatist to action star) in hopes of fresh success emerging from the dormant cradle of life.
For two, the insanely popular video game series its based on is now old enough to buy alcohol. It’s also, theoretically, the simplest to convert from game to film because it utilizes so many cinematic concepts to begin with. It’s an adventure with a brash lead and exotic locations. Yet Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its sequel were made during the same cartoonish era that delivered League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The early 2000s was when geek properties hit puberty. Their forms were changing, they were getting more attention, but they were still gawky and embarrassingly awkward and few people took them seriously. So, more than just a reboot, Tomb Raider has the opportunity to apply modern depth to films that were last made with extra cheese.
Here are six movies to watch alongside Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider: The Trilogy (1998)
This straight-faced promotional short film was crafted for the “Tomb Raider III” launch party at London’s Natural History Museum. If you weren’t there, you didn’t see it, but it landed online a couple of years ago when producer Janey de Nordwall uncovered the original digibeta tape and shared it.
The three-year distance between this and the first feature film is a blip stylistically, with both productions giving steely glances toward goofy concepts. At the same time, you can see the tween gaming fans going nutty for this had it ever aired as a commercial. That’s the hoop the original movies had to jump through — chasing down a sexy, international adventure aimed, somehow, at 13-year-old boys. The new incarnation comes squarely in an era where call cartoon movies are aimed at adults.
Secret of the Incas (1954)
I thought about including Raiders of the Lost Ark, with Indiana Jones’s DNA clearly present in the archaeological swashbuckling of Lara Croft, but decided to go back to the granddaddy. The mystical MacGuffins, the buried temples, the gun-waving mortal danger. They were all present when Charlton Heston starred as Harry Steele, a tour guide/treasure hunter with a name just south of “Max Powers.”
I won’t spoil the ending, but you can see it mirrored in Last Crusade and in Indiana Jones’s general operating ethos. The fedora and jacket are two more clear inspirations, sartorial symbols that Croft replaced with a tank top (that doesn’t seem like good protection against mosquitoes or poisoned darts).
The Wave (2015)
Simon West got the Lara Croft directing gig in 2000 ostensibly on his work making Con Air. Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug got the job directing the reboot most likely on the strength of The Wave, a disaster film that’s devastatingly simple. A geologist on his last day of work (isn’t it always the geologist’s last day?) has to pull his family to safety when an avalanche creates a 300-foot wave headed for their small tourist town.
It’s an intense thrill, beautifully crafted even if the characterizations are all flat. Wait and see if that exact sentence comes to mind when you see Tomb Raider.
The Mummy (1999)
There’s a nest of connections here. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider certainly borrowed from the epic silliness of the Brendan Fraser Egyptology adventure. It provided a blue print for crafting a crowd-pleasing, critic-shrugging desert ride with magic antiquities. It’s also, now, the stylistic middle child of a franchise that converted Universal’s famous monster from a creepy spine-tingler into a big money blockbuster with infant CGI.
That Universal tried it again with better CGI, a confusingly dark mood in 2017, and no success leaves the question open as to whether audiences are up for treasure seeking, torches in dark caverns, and impossible leaps from planes.
As a bonus connection, Jolie left the franchise after two entries only to be replaced by Vikander, which is also what happened after Rachel Weisz left after two Mummy movies. They continued on with Maria Bello in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and, like finding a thousand-year-old rotted corpse in your soup, it was not good.
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Speaking of crazy plane stunts and bad Mummy movies, Tom Cruise’s first Mission: Impossible came out in 1996. 1996! That’s insane. The latest one comes out this year, just a few months after Tomb Raider, and, wouldn’t you know it, 1996 is also the same year the “Tomb Raider” video game hit PlayStations everywhere.
Not only does this movie connect the present and the recent past, it offers us a look at what was big when “Tomb Raider” first entered the world. That should give us a sense of how long it’s floated around in the pop cultural air before this filmic version came together. But, like movie franchises, the video game doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The 2013 “Tomb Raider” reboot game launched to great acclaim, successfully updating a classic both technologically and narratively. The video game industry isn’t immune from the nostalgia trap (and we can’t dismiss projects simply because they were borne out of happy old memories).
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
After a fictional adventure into luminous buried things, why not continue to trek with Werner Herzog into a real-life cave of wonders? At least you won’t have to dodge any poison darts.
Herzog made this 3D documentary after learning about the Chauvet cave system where the oldest-known human-made paintings hide away from the public’s destructive eyes. I’m concerned with how the action cheese of the 1990s affects modern adventures, but here’s a reminder that we’ve been making art for much, much, much, much longer than Jan de Bont.
Where is our “Diablo” movie? Or “Myst”? Why has this title survived over the decades while other haven’t? And how has Resident Evil done even better? Both are testaments to the individuality and power of their main characters — bold figures that have earned icon status regardless of which actress takes on the role.
Still, it’s interesting to see that these adventures, this franchise, found its director in a well-made, stock action flick. It’s not clear if they really want to move too far away from the self-serious eye roll of the Jolie years.
At any rate, if Werner Herzog asks you to go into a cave with him, say yes. What’s the worst that could happen?
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