I won’t pretend I’m some knight-errant, riding in on a white horse to save Tomb Raider. I know that, as a hetero male nerd, I’m supposed to love Lara Croft, but I’ve despised every game in this franchise and things only got worse as it went on, each iteration more shamelessly copy-pasted than the last.
Then the old girl almost died in 2003, when Core Design and Eidos Interactive released the sixth game in the series, Angel of Darkness. It combined the tank-like controls and five-story screaming death drops of the previous five games with a headscratchingly stupid plot involving magic paintings, a camera that’s as bent on Lara’s death as the antagonists, and more bugs than Jurassic Park’s computer systems.
Then this movie came out, perfectly capturing that Tomb Raider brand of sexually-charged tedium and teeth-grinding predictability. No surprise, I hated it. What does surprise me is, people actually stand up for Cradle of Life. My copy even contains a pull-quote from the Man Himself, Roger Ebert, who called it “better than the first” – which is anything but true – and, “fun,” which is true, but for all the wrong reasons.
Why else would it be on this website? ‘Round here, we specialize in movies that spectacularly fail to be what they set out to be. Cradle of Life wants to be a rollicking Action Adventure, the kind of movie Republic Serial producers could only dream of back in the 1930s. Full of exotic locales and ancient treasure, sure, but slick and sexed-up for the post-9/11 world of terrorist masterminds and WMD black marketeers. No simple Indiana Jones rip-off, this. Or so it pretends.
See, we’ve gotten the first movie out of the way and established Lara as a bad-ass, international tomb raider. Now its time for Lady Croft to really stretch her legs as a character, go through some kind of arc…maybe some fallout from that royal fucking she gave the Illuminati in the last film…? Wait…I’m being told…no…? That, apart from her Red Dwarf butler and her dipshit techie friend, there’s no continuity with the first film whatsoever? Great. I see they’re going the “drop our hero into a new adventure every few years” school of sequel creation. So much for avoiding the inevitable Indiana Jones comparisons.
Okay…so once the Paramount logo rises from the sea like Bryan Singer’s Phoenix, we zoom in on…a big, fat Greek wedding. Conveniently located on a picturesque cliff, just in case the bride or groom decide to save everyone the wait and end it all right here. An earthquake interrupts the festivities, uncovering our main titles and the long-lost, sunken treasure trove of Alexander of Macedonia.
Adrian Veidt: “Or, Alexander the Great, as you know him.”
Naturally, international treasure hunters swarm over this new find, including Lara Croft, our Tomb Raider. After obeying Shatner’s Law of Sequel Entrances (performing some pointless stunts on a jet ski that serve no purpose, apart from showing off her little black bikini) she and her two Greek Redshirts consult a tidal flowchart. They proceed to rip-off the “they’re digging in the wrong place” scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, so Lara can justify reaching the temple first.
On the way down, Lara and her Redshirts dodge a shark that…screams at them as it passes. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s one of the sharks from Jaws 3, a bad omen if ever I saw one. Yet, Our Hero and her body count reach the temple unharmed, discovering a giant statue of Alexander with a big, glowing medallion in its chest. They also discover a giant, glowing sphere and an opportunity for Lara to do some parkour in her form-fitting, silver wetsuit, which the trailers and posters for this turkey hyped like you wouldn’t believe. Whoa, there, Angelina. You could at least let me buy you dinner before you stuck your crotch in my face. If we knew each other better, I wouldn’t mind so much, but c’mon…I’m trying to be a gentleman, here. (Tryin’ to find the words to describe her without being disrespectful.)
Seriously, though, I think I know why Angelina Jolie only did two of these movies. Bad enough having to pour yourself into one of those catsuits. Try doing that and then letting some creepy Dutch dude stick a camera in your crotch. God knows how many times he ordered unnecessary retakes. “No, really, Angelina. I learned it from watching Verhoeven work. Now do that somersault again, would you please?”
Anyway, while Lara’s prying the medallion from Alexander’s chest, some Chinese gangsters show up to murder her two Redshirts. (Surprise.) Lara gets some revenge, killing a few of her attackers, but all the gunfire proves too much for the temple walls. Even after presumably thousands of years at the bottom of the ocean and the opening earthquake, there are only a few holes in the roof and a few leaks in the foundations when Lara and Co. arrive. But Nature need not have feared: stray shots from an M4 can apparently do what the Mediterranean failed to do for so many centuries.
The bad guys escape, sabotaging Lara’s air tanks, leaving her no choice but to swim for it as the temple collapses around here. Outside, she has her one authentic moment of pure, audacious Bad Assery in the entire film. Instead of making the desperate swim for the surface, she hangs out at the bottom, cuts a slit in her arm with her boot knife, and uses that to attract the attention of our old friend, Steve the Screaming Shark. Lara punches Steve the shark right in his face and, seizing his dorsal fin, rides him all the way to the surface like an oversized rescue dolphin.
Up top, Our Heroine collapses on a floating piece of flotsam, since the gangsters obviously paused to sink her boat before they followed her and her Redshirts down. Sure hope Steve the Screaming Shark doesn’t come back…especially since Lara leaves her bleeding arm in the water. Wonder how she’d deal with such an obvious physical disability? Probably just buy herself a robot arm, like any decent superhero. Hell, she already has a pair of RoboCop’s guns. Might as well go for the Total Body Prosthesis…but before I can comprehend that level of Bad Ass, Lara’s twin butt-monkeys, Hillary (Chris Barrie) and Bryce (Noah Taylor) show up to rescue her…in a submarine…that they have…somehow…what, does Croft Manor have its own refueling port now? Careful, movie…between her dead parents and her sociopathic way of earning a living, Lara’s dangerously close to ripping-off Batman as it is.
Meanwhile, in a private jet, somewhere, Our Villain is making his Villainous Pitch to a cabin full of other villains. This is Dr. Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds), an apparently Nobel Prize-winning Scientist who’s now…well, I’ll let Agent Double-O Exposition explain:
“the foremost designer of biological weapons in the world. His creations have been at the heart of every act of bio-terror in the past fifty years. Reiss’ disdain for life is legendary. He has no political agenda and he doesn’t care who his weapons kill or why. A modern day Dr. Mengele.”
The agent of MI6 shows up at Croft Manor to hire Lara to find Reiss. Turns out that glowing orb was a map to the titular Cradle of Life, which (Lara inferred from her few seconds of looking around the place) is the resting place of Pandora’s Box. Or something similar. I don’t know.
Lara tells the MI6 boys a stupid-sounding story about some Egyptian Pharaoh who found the box back when the Greeks were still scratching fields out of volcanic ash with sticks. The box contained a plague that decimated his armies, so the Pharaoh moved it India…where Alexander found it, two thousand years later. Only so he could ship it back to its original home.
Got all that? No? Well, it doesn’t matter, because it’s all needlessly complicated, pseudo-historical bullshit, the Action Adventure genre’s equivalent of Star Trek‘s technobable. There as here, it serves to artificially lengthen the conflict, turning what should be a straight forward race-to-the-sacred-place romp into a two hour exercise in thumb-twiddling. In order to find Pandora’s Box before the Modern Mengele, Lara has to find the map-orb. But those Chinese gangsters have it now, so she needs to find them first. And in order to do that, she needs to find a special someone…
Someone we’ve never met before, whose existence wasn’t even hinted at in the last film. Someone named Terry Sheridan, played by…Gerard Butler? Jesus Christ, it is! Well, if anyone’s going to help Lara track down Alexander’s lost treasures, it might as well be King Leonidas of Sparta.
Lara rescues Terry from one of the many, many prisons For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. The two have brief flashes of tense chemistry before Terry takes Lara’s offer: lead her to the black marketeers and MI6 will reinstate Sheridan’s Scottish citizenship. Seems he betrayed…someone…sometime back…including Lara…at some point…fuck. We’re not even half an hour in and I’ve given up caring.
For all the secret agents showing up in the house, and the trail of dead bodies she’s perpetually leaving in her wake, Lara Croft just has it too damn easy. Everything comes naturally for her. Jolie plays her with a smooth, confident charm that’s enjoyable…but I can’t really care for Lara, because she never goes through anything worthwhile. Nothing seems to affects her, and her charm and good looks almost assure she’ll have friends waiting for her wherever she goes.
Like in the next scene, where she and Terry ride an MI6 glider into northern China, crash land it into a lake, and parachute safely onto a farm…where they promptly meet one of Lara’s old friends. Who, like any good hostess, awaits them with guns and dirt bikes. Her ancestors would be proud of her. Who is this woman? What mystically-tinged adventure brought her and Lara together? What will the Chinese security apparatus do to her if they find out about her helping Westerners invade their country? We don’t know and we won’t be finding out either. Time for Lara to cozy up to Terry Sheridan Starkiller.
So on the way to the secret base of the deadly Chinese bandits who’ve already killed two of Lara’s partners…she and Terry flirt. With dirt bikes.
I’m sorry, but are they both twelve? I’m supposed to take them both seriously, right? Because I thought they were out to stop a Mad Scientist from buying a map to Pandora’s Box off some Not-Triads. I don’t need their sudden reversion to middle school jarring my suspension of disbelief. The action scenes (as when Terry and Lara slide down a mountain on a pair of ropes while hanging upside down and having a gun battle with the Not-Triads) are already doing a fine job of that.
At this point, the movie devolves into pretty much exactly the type of video game it’s based upon. Lara and Sheridan fight the Not-Triads in their network of caves (full of Terra Cotta warriors…because we’re in China, after all). They don’t get the orb, but they escape alive, and Lara gets to kill that one guy who killed her Greek Redshirts after she offers him an out. But fuck that. He pulls a gun on her while her back’s turned, giving her all the excuse she needs. So there’s that boss battle over and done with. Then Lara and Sheridan fight the Not-Triads in Shanghai (played by a detailed but tellingly-depopulated set). They don’t get the orb, but they escape alive. Finally, Lara and Starkiller break into Dr. Reiss’ eee-vil lab. They get the orb and escape alive.
Movie’s over right? Wrong. There’s forty agonizing minutes to go at this point, each one as blandly predictable as the last. The movie’s run out of time to do anything other than what’s expected of it. So, because Lara left one of her…Blu-tooth headsets behind, Dr. Reiss kidnaps her butler and her Token Nerd, forcing Lara to lead him to the Cradle of Life…which is in “Africa,” by the way. You know. “Africa?”
It’s really Kenya…which, for those who don’t know, is a country on the continent of Africa. To be more exact, it’s that bit of Kenya immediately adjacent to Mordor, complete with a phalanx of CGI ghouls who’ve been guarding the Cradle of Life all this time. And what scintillating revelations about Our Heroine do these forty-five minutes have in store for us?
Nothing. Other than the fact Lara’s genre savvy enough to try and dissuade Starkiller from his Sudden But Inevitable Betrayal. Two-thirds of the way through – once they’ve got the orb – she abandons Terry in China, knowing that he’ll show up at the last moment and she’ll be forced to kill him. He does and (after a tense stand-off) she does. Kill him, I mean. But by that point, it’s too little, too late…especially considering all the other people Lara’s gunned down with nary a thought for their families. This is the American Action Movie’s slow death from exhaustion. And who better to bring it than the man who almost saved the genre with 1995’s Speed?
Jan de Bont’s enough of a director to bring an appropriate sense of child-like awe and wide scope to things, despite his abuse of slow motion. Then again, you could say that about half the directors working in Hollywood, post-Matrix. Or, as in this case, post-Matrix Reloaded. He can do a sweeping helicopter shot of land- or seascapes and he never tries to gussy up his contrived action scenes with Paul Greenglass shaky-cam or Bayian over-editing.
In the end, though, he can’t save a script that’s as even more boneheaded as a standalone story than as a sequel. No surprise this film shares no writers with the original Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Instead, it boasts the names of Dean Georgrias, writer of…pretty much this. And Steven E. de Souza, writer of nearly every big Action film of the 80s and 90s…with all the glory and horror that implies. For every Die Hard in his filmography, there’s a Hudson Hawk or a K-9000. For every Commando, there’s a Beverly Hills Cop III. Sure, this is the guy who wrote The Running Man, but he also wrote (and produced) that fucking Street Fighter movie. And The Flintstones movie. And Judge Dread. At this point, it’s safe to say God put Steven de Souza on Earth specifically so his work would annoy and inspire the Nostalgia Critic.
James V. Hart doesn’t have any excuses. He wrote Contact, Hook and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Cradle of Life fits quite well with his previous output of ill-received, boring shit that makes no sense when you think about it. It’s not just the screaming sharks and the predictable plot twists. This is quite obviously a script stapled together from a bunch of other people’s work. No surprise, none of its characters have definite arcs, they all come and go as the plot requires them, and none of it feels the least bit satisfying because nothing really happened during the movie.
How could it? Everyone Lara Croft interacts with either dies a horrible death or runs as far away from her as possible. During the Kenya Level, she meets up with an old college friend, Kosa (Djimon Hounsou), who moved back home, he says, to put his education to work for his people. Personally, I think he moved in order to get out from under the cloud of Death that follows Lara around everywhere, like some spectral crow.
Or it would, if I were writing this thing. Early on, we get what sounds like a peek into Lara’s world view, when she tells us
“All the world comes in pairs: good and bad, men and women, right and wrong. What’s pleasure without a little pain?”
(1) That’s a remarkably Classical way of looking at the world, specifically Ancient Greek, befitting the daughter of an English archeologist. Except (2) why the fuck is Lara Croft, a professional grave robber, even bringing up questions of right and wrong? Oh, I know we like to dress it up and call it “tomb raiding,” but I can call a turd sandwich “the greatest meal I’ve ever eaten,” and it’ll still be a turd sandwich. I look at her and I see all those grave robbing Mad Scientists from the 30s…and all the Swashbucking Adventurers who went on to inspire Indiana Jones. Who, in turn, inspired Lara Croft.
And so we come full circle, back to what I’ve termed the Resident Evil Problem and the Problem is thus: A movie based on a video game that was itself based on a movie will inevitably turn out to be a bad rip-off of the original film. In the 90s, studios saved themselves the cost of franchise licensing by just ripping-off the original film in the first place.
Unfortunately, that stopped being profitable real fast, since literally everyone was doing it. Every successful action picture of the last thirty years comes complete with a whole library of rip-offs and bastardizations. An inordinately large amount of them seemed to escape the archives back in 2003, a summer that saw this flick fight it out with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Bad Boys II, 2 Fast 2 Furious, and Dumb and Dumberer for the coveted title “Most Pointless Movie of the Year.”
Don’t ask me who won (Bad Boys II, obviously). All I know for sure is, somewhere in the “L” section of the Indiana Jones Library, you’ll find Cradle of Life and it’s prequel gathering dust, right where they belong. Hopefully, we’ll have to wait a good three thousand years before some idiot comes along and tries to dig them up again.