What 'Tomb Raider' Forgets About Origin Stories
[This story contains spoilers for Tomb Raider]
The new Tomb Raider is clearly trying to be an origin story, but there's a problem. It introduces viewers to a younger Lara Croft than the 2001 Angelina Jolie version, and Alicia Vikander’s Lara hasn’t raided any tombs yet when we first meet her.
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Yet saying Tomb Raider is an origin story because we meet Lara earlier in her life before she’s raided a tomb is like defining an origin story as any narrative that starts at the beginning. Based off of this logic, the vast majority of films — including just about any film made with the hopeful glimmer of future franchise potential in its eye — would count as origin stories, in which case the entire term becomes basically meaningless.
So then, what is an origin story?
Looking at the wave of origin stories that have swept over Hollywood since the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the patterns seen across many of these films go far deeper than merely starting at the beginning. What makes origin stories origin stories is the concept of metamorphosis — it’s not just about heroes becoming heroes, but about heroes becoming heroes at the cost of who they used to be. Think of Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in Batman Begins, or Jim Kirk (Chris Pine) in the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, or Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in X-Men: First Class. The thing that makes them reboots is that the characters born through these transformations are already familiar to us from past movie-going. The thing that makes them origin stories is that we are shown how the origin of these personalities comes at the expense of their past selves.
The origin story reboot is a somewhat particular narrative in that it is a journey toward familiarity. Viewers are presented with a familiar name displaying unfamiliar behavior — a Bruce Wayne, still a poor little rich boy, trying to figure out where to channel his anger, a directionless Jim Kirk wasting his life away in dive bars, a flirtatious and somewhat lackadaisical Charles Xavier and then shown the (often painful, always dramatic) process by which these unfamiliar people are transformed into the characters we know and love — Batman, Captain Kirk, Professor X.
But Lara Croft is recognizable as Lara Croft the moment she first appears onscreen in Tomb Raider. The difference between who she is at the beginning of the movie and at the end is that by the end of the movie she has raided a tomb. She hasn’t had any kind of breakthrough or development. There are no revelations to speak of beyond the basic, I-have-solved-the-riddle variety. At the beginning of the film she’s a sassy, scrappy, flirtatious powerhouse with an adventurous streak a mile wide, and at the end of the film she is still very much that person, just more experienced. There is no metamorphosis — she’s the same “kind of Croft” at the beginning as she is at the end. Considering we see her as a stubbornly independent, archery-practicing adolescent in a flashback, her character seems to have been fixed in place prior to her father’s disappearance, not to mention the start of the film’s action.
The philosopher John Locke called the human mind at birth a tabula rasa, “blank slate,” which is then molded into a particular shape by experience. While origin-story reboots involve getting to know heroes earlier along in their timeline, none have as of yet gone back quite that far. They characters may be young, but still far from tabula rasa territory. Whatever mindset — or “shape,” to continue with the metaphor — is shown at the beginning of a film has to, effectively, die, in order for something else to be born. Creation (or origination, if you will) and destruction are two sides of the same coin. That’s where the good drama and the quality emotional content of origin stories comes from. What we see instead in Tomb Raider is a character in stasis. There’s no journey, no discovery, no mystery. It’s not an origin story, because on a fundamental level nothing actually originates.
It’s easy to see that Tomb Raider thinks it’s an origin story because it makes use of several visual and narrative techniques common to origin stories, just without the underlying metamorphosis that would make those techniques actually mean something. One is parallelism between an early battle that the protagonist loses, and a final fight that the protagonist wins. Think of Bruce Wayne sparring with Ra’s al Ghul in the beginning of Batman Begins versus their showdown at the end of the film. The differences between the two fights reflect developments in far more than just Bruce’s fighting skills. Lara managing to get out of the headlock when fighting Vogel as opposed to her first-scene boxing club match is really just a matter of skill development and a pinch of luck. It’s a similar story with Lara going and buying the matching guns that will undoubtedly be used to achieve her iconic double-holster look at the end of the film. In the absence of any kind of character development, any metamorphosis, the guns are just guns with an extra helping of fan service. They don’t actually mean anything.
Tomb Raider makes for a relatively entertaining two hours. It’s a video game movie that really lives up to its name, in the sense that its reliance on search-the-room-to-find-the-solution logic and narrative flow make it feel like watching someone else play a video game on an exceptionally large screen. But it both obviously tries and utterly fails at being an origin story by remembering the details of the format while forgetting the fundamental nature of what such a story actually is.
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