'Tomb Raider': Is Hollywood Adapting the Wrong Video Games?

Instead of focusing on brand recognition, perhaps studios should mine properties that already have engaging stories built in.
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Long the butt of jokes for a history of duds like Super Mario Bros. and Doom, the subgenre of game-to-film adaptations has churned out something totally acceptable in Tomb Raider. The new film announces the arrival of a credible action hero in Oscar winner Alicia Vikander, and it's importantly free of the so-bad-it's-good irony that lets people enjoy something like Mortal Kombat (which has only grown more enjoyable as its cheesy effects have aged). The film moves at an economic pace, quickly getting viewers on the side of its likable protagonist before diving headfirst into a series of decent chases, fights and stunts. It all works, to a point. 

But why a third Tomb Raider?

The Angelina Jolie vehicles are campily bad, full of shameless male gaze, obnoxious comic relief and only the most dated of techno music to score each confused action scene. Yet even so, those films clawed their way into our collective consciousness on the backs of Jolie and the name recognition of Lara Croft. The trailers for the 2018 film took advantage of this name recognition in proud, screen-filling font that declared: "ALICIA VIKANDER IS LARA CROFT."

Some of the new film's most compelling scenes are directly borrowed from the 2013 videogame reboot of the same name that finally handed Lara Croft a pair of pants. There's one scene where our hero escapes a rickety old plane teetering on the edge of a waterfall by using one of its leftover parachutes. Like a lot of big-budget video games, it's full of sequences that channel the stuff people buy popcorn for, which explains some of its adaptive appeal. But what it lacks, which becomes quite apparent in the new film adaptation, is much of a story in between. Lara's evolution into a hardened raider of tombs is less told than felt, through the gauntlet the game subjects her and the player to; as thrilling as it is to see Vikander power through such moments in live-action, the movie is forced to fill in the blanks with a weak plot about her long-lost dad that has its roots in the game's follow-up, 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider.

Tomb Raider ultimately bows to the weaknesses of its source material, which could help explain why it couldn't snag the top spot at the box office this weekend. It's often argued that games tend not to survive the adaptive process because stripping their interactivity robs them of their core appeal, leaving behind only thin characters and a derivative, mediocre story. This is, to a point, what's happened with Tomb Raider. But there's enough bite to that original premise of Lara surviving on an island to create a totally passable action movie, which suggests that the problem with game adaptations has more to do with which games are being adapted in the first place.

The history of video game movies plays a bit like a disturbing preview of our current era's mad scramble to adapt anything with the faintest spark of brand recognition. Beyond the Tomb Raider films, consider that there have been two baffling attempts to cram the Hitman stealth games into an action template. Consider that there have been adaptations of four different fighting game franchises (Tekken, Dead or Alive, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat), a genre not exactly renowned for its storytelling. Consider that there's a movie made from the Need for Speed racing games. Consider that Illumination Entertainment is tackling a second go at Super Mario Bros. 25 years after that disastrous live-action film we don't like to talk about. Perhaps it will work as an animated property, but note that Mario, while the most recognizable video game character of all time, has a vocabulary only slightly wider than your average Pokemon.

None of these games really cry out for a film adaptation, though some do seem like they'd translate well because they already tell decent in-game stories. But the WarCraft movie ends up feeling like a fantasy also-ran, and that's because the WarCraft games are so appealing because of how indebted they are to so much fantasy literature, placing all those orcs you've read about at your fingertips. The influence of George A. Romero on Resident Evil is the entire point. Max Payne blends hard-boiled detective fiction with dual-pistoled dives through the air in slow-motion that owe a huge debt to John Woo, and the first game even re-creates the lobby scene from The Matrix. These games aren't about bold, original ideas so much as letting you play out familiar concepts from other mediums, which makes them awkward fits for a movie.

I don't mean to discount the role of the creative force behind these movies in how they turned out; Mark Wahlberg’s Max Payne, for example, is deeply miscast and somehow short on the game's trademark gunfights, while the Resident Evil movies spin off into their own weird direction. But conversely, adaptation-unfriendly properties can still become creative successes, such as as in comic writer Warren Ellis' work on Netflix's animated Castlevania series, which expands on the slight material for something legitimately engaging. But in each attempt to make video game movies the next big thing, there's a clear priority on which games might be recognizable names over which games might have stories that translate well to the screen; even if this upcoming Rampage movie turns out OK, nobody threw Dwayne Johnson in there because of the game's rich backstory centering on monsters punching skyscrapers.

Some of the most successful game adaptations have actually been anime series. The various seasons of the Pokemon show provide plenty of space to explore the corners of its world, relying less on high-stakes conflict than a free-wheeling approach to a unique concept. Visual novel games are frequent adaptation candidates because of their heavy (and comparatively less interactive) storytelling focus; the series Steins;Gate — an anime adaptation of the time-travel focused video game — does not feel out-of-place among other shows despite its roots, because its source material has both an original, engaging plot and a visible affection for its characters. Movies might follow this example, looking away from attempts to capitalize on the names of Call of Duty or Minecraft and instead examining something like the Nazi-ruled alternate history of the recent Wolfenstein games or the quirky psychic summer camp at the center of Psychoanuts, which both emphasize characterization of their supporting cast to supplement their strong concepts.

In its general OK-ness, Tomb Raider shows the possibilities of adapting a game that's not entirely conducive to an adaptation but still more suitable than most. It leverages its brand value to bring us both an acceptable film and a female action lead, something more movies need. Most of all, it suggests a potential future for game adaptations that are more discerning in their choice of source material, with games like Tomb Raider as well as others that are even more suitable for the screen.