Tomb Raider

Despite attempts at blurring the lines between the two, there’s still a fundamental difference between movies and video games.

There’s an inherent separation between the viewer and the action depicted on the screen in a movie/TV show/etc, and the way you experience things is predicated on that degree of separation. You may have an emotional investment in what happens to a character, but that empathy is still an abstract, existential thing without real consequence. If bad things happen to the character, you might feel bad, angry or what have you, it’s out of your control. The tension is based around the decisions of others– namely the writer, director, and anyone else who created the thing you’re watching. Is someone else’s decision going to satisfy you on an emotional or visceral level?

The video game’s tension isn’t entirely based around this. Sure, there’s some degree of that with today’s AAA narrative-heavy games, and there’s some of the same anticipation as in something you passively experience, but how you get to those points is based entirely on your performance. Can you clear this level, make it past this boss, or solve this puzzle? As you’re playing a game, it’s up to you whether or not that happens. Some games have a Choose Your Own Adventure element to them, where you can make a few choices that impact story beats, and even the most linear, non-narrative games depend on your actions to get from point A to point B. If you stop participating, you simply never get there. the primary source of tension is you, and that makes you more than just an observer.

This is why certain types of set pieces work in video games but don’t quite work in movies. The “platform” style of gaming, be it the running and jumping of Mario or Sonic, or the cliff climbing and hanging on of Uncharted or Tomb Raider, is a sort of set piece that works perfectly in a video game. Crossing that chasm is based purely around your ability to time jumps and the like– the tension is based on your  hand eye coordination and ability to memorize enemy placement. The very act of “I may fall and have to start this over” is incentive enough to have you doubt and care about the outcome, since that element of human failure is present. Even with modern games that have no concept of “lives” and “continues” will force you to go back to a certain save point and start over, and you have to repeat that sequence of events until you master it enough to get through.

That element of challenge isn’t present in a movie, and that’s why literal translations of what work in video games doesn’t quite work in movies. The new Tomb Raider movie suffers from this. It does a decent job at many of the things that work the same in a game and a movie– you really feel Lara Croft’s pain as she struggles to survive on the island trying to stop the villains– but most of the big set pieces depend on a lot of running, climbing, and hanging that need extra elements to work in this context. We know that Lara’s going to make it off of that rotting WW2-era plane on the edge of the waterfall. Shes’ the main character, and this isn’t the sort of movie that does in its lead at the halfway point. We know better, so we need something else to make such scenes work. This is where stunt work and the like come in. We don’t need tension so much as we need to be dazzled by experts doing impressive physical work.

Tomb Raider just doesn’t have that in the scenes where it counts the most. To compare it to the movies it most wants to be like, that scene in the plane isn’t near on the same level as the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Harrison Ford’s stunt double literally climbs below a moving truck, front to back, to avoid being run over. That tactile knowledge that a real person is performing the stunt, even if aided by effects and the like to clean it up, adds an element to a scene with a known outcome. It isn’t about “will he get out of this,” it’s about “how awesome is that,” and the effects-heavy way Tomb Raider goes about it keeps it from really working.

Essentially, these video game to movie adaptations work best not when they try to translate specific beats from one medium to another, but when they take the general vibe and make that vibe work in a different medium. Tomb Raider works best when it goes full-on Indiana Jones riff. It really wants to be The Last Crusade, and it does some decent things with that father/child dynamic. The up close and personal fist fights and gun fights aren’t bad. Walter Goggins’ villain is slimy in an interesting way– not quite relatable or sympathetic, but you see the why to his malice and frustration, not unlike Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark. When it works, Tomb Raider “feels” like Tomb Raider, even when it isn’t being exactly like the video game.

That’s where these video game adaptations in general excel– in spirit rather than in the flesh. I rank Silent Hill and Mortal Kombat as the best game-to-movie adaptations, and both of those movies embrace the general vibes of their games without being slaves to the mechanics. Silent Hill is less about fighting Pyramid Head and solving puzzles as it is about embracing that Suspiria-style dream logic, while Mortal Kombat is a classic martial arts tournament movie with all the ridiculous styles and music inherent to the game. That’s what future Tomb Raider movies need– less hanging and climbing and more “we wanna make genderswapped Indiana Jones.”

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