Hollywood does not have a great track record with producing live-action video game adaptations, but that, in itself, is not a sufficient answer for why Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) failed fans as an adaptation and non-fans as a film. Although it can be easy to blame a film studio’s desire to profit from the name recognition and/or nostalgia of a video game (especially when the source material is so limited that it could not stand alone as a film), neither of those reasons applies to Tomb Raider’s adaption. The dilemma is much more intimate, existing between audience and screen. Unlike their sources, video game adaptations do not allow for the immediate input from the would-be player. In the case of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, fans of the franchise never experience the sense of immersion that the game promises due to unnecessary story elements meant for wider audience appeal, while film’s reliance on “insider” knowledge of the franchise for its comedic moments alienates the uninitiated.
The Lara Croft of Tomb Raiders I-IV (the games that serve as the film’s inspiration) is a harmonious amalgamation of all the best qualities of Barbie, Indiana Jones, and James Bond. She is an aristocratic archaeologist with her own Dreamhouse and a penchant for adventure and saving the world. She is a lone wolf survivor who travels to exotic locales and puts herself in danger to uncover ancient secrets simply for the love of the hunt without hope of financial gain. A film adaptation should have worked, and the first five minutes of the movie seem to pull it off. In the film’s opening, Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie) looks as though she walked right out of the game, and the fight choreography and subtle audio cues (Jolie’s gasps upon backing into objects are reminiscent of the sounds Lara makes in-game if the player walks her into a wall) appeal to fans’ insider familiarity with the game.
However, all of that is quickly dashed when Lara’s robot opponent jumps on top of her. No longer is the audience’s view of self-assured, smirking Lara; instead, the viewer sees through the “eyes” of the robot attacker as Lara writhes on the ground and grunts in pain, an uncomfortable series of shots that makes it look as though the heroine is being sexually assaulted. This is followed by an erotic shower sequence that results in Lara’s butler, Hillary (Christopher Barrie), chiding her for not being ladylike. Meanwhile, in the games, the one shower scene that players are teased with is interrupted by Lara, who is clothed, breaking the fourth wall to remark, “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” before shooting at the player for attempting to look at her in this private moment.
The film’s primary mistake is that it attempts to humanize Lara in the wrong ways. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is not the first video game adaptation to fall into the trap of trying to make the fantasy setting of a video game fit into reality, so that there is a level of relatability for the movie-going public. For example, how did Hollywood interpret a simplistic video game about a pixelated plumber trying to rescue a princess from a giant turtle-lizard? The solution was to place Mario in Brooklyn during a cyberpunk, dystopian dictatorship ruled by Dennis Hopper (Super Mario Bros. ). For her film debut, Laura Croft is bestowed with the inability to microwave a Lean Cuisine and, more importantly, daddy issues that have led her to her current career in adventuring. Lara’s original in-game backstory revealed that she had been the sole survivor of a plane crash that spurred her to actively remove herself from her former life in favor of raiding tombs. Instead of this agency and self-determination, her path within the film is guided by the need to have her father back.
Translating a video game with a relatively deep plotline, wherein the player could become immersed over the course of ten to twenty hours in Lara’s struggle, to a film with quick, haphazard action sequences and a scant one hundred minute running time resulted in a cheap story with the veneer of adventure. In the game, a player would linger in each setting, exploring and searching for secrets and clues; the film offers no such pleasure. With no mystery or puzzles to solve, with everything simply handed to the audience, both fan and non-fan are left unfulfilled.