How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Tomb Raider

tomb-raider

*Mild Spoilers Ahead

In elementary and middle school, one of my favorite movie series was the Nicholas Cage National Treasure films. They were the perfect sleepover movies to watch with friends, to ooh and aww at the exciting chase sequences, and to laugh at the jokes. They weren’t great films, but they were fun, exciting, and tried to teach a little history and patriotism. I’m not familiar with the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films, or the original video game this film is based on, so as I watched the new Tomb Raider (2018) it was not those images that came to mind, but National Treasure.

Now, this new film is fairly predictable. There were a few times that I found myself saying the next line of dialogue (“The tomb’s not trying to keep people out… it’s trying to keep people in!”), and a careful viewer can point out the twists a mile away. Yet, by the end I had decided that at my next sleepover, I was going to switch out National Treasure for Tomb Raider, because while it’s not necessarily a better film, it’s a smarter one, and I couldn’t help but fall a little in love with it.

Alicia Vikander makes a star turn as Lara Croft, who goes on a search for her missing adventurer father (Dominic West). She teams up with Lu (Daniel Wu) to travel to a secret island off the coast of Japan to find him. This is Lara Croft’s origin story, showing the younger, less experienced Croft come into her own as the Tomb Raider. The film screams “franchise,” even setting up a sequel at the end, but it knows its strength, which is not the plot but the character the plot is based around. Even when I didn’t much care for what was going on in the film, Vikander’s Lara Croft had me hooked.

It adds another level of engagement and excitement when you can relate to the person on screen so deeply. Sure, I will never be Lara Croft, as much as I would like to be. But Vikander made me believe perhaps one day I can at least meet a Lara Croft-esque person that I can be friends with. The film, different from the original Angelina Jolie ones, is shot through the female gaze. This term does not mean the men in the film are treated badly, or that it is a feminist manifesto (it was even directed by a man with the manliness of names, Roar Uthaug). It simply means the film appeals to the female audience by not sexualizing the female characters and providing complex portrayals of characters that can enact female fantasies and escapism. And this worked wonders for my viewing; it was impossible for my friend and me not to spend the entire movie talking (and by talking I mean sparse whispering, as I am a courteous theater attendee) to the screen as if Lara were one of our friends.
“No, Lara, don’t go in there!”
“Punch him in the adam’s apple! YESSSS- my mom told me about that move.”
“Don’t let him talk down to you like that, Lara! Okay good, you’re escaping. Good call pal, good call.”
“I want to borrow your leather jacket. Where did you get it?”
“How… how do you get biceps like that? I can’t even do one pull-up.”
“Now that’s a nice guy, be friends with him!”

Lara Croft is a video game action heroine for sure. She does impossible stunts, survives insane injuries, and is perfectly film-suave. She doesn’t change much over the course of the film- she starts out independent, adventurous, and smart, and ends that way as well. But, there are a few details thrown into an otherwise pretty conventional film that both point to what possibly could have been, but also elevate it significantly.

There is clear attention to detail regarding how Lara could realistically take down men twice as strong as her, and the movie makes it clear how challenging that is. And when she does have her first kill in self-defense, she sits by the body and cries. It’s a stunning moment of humanity in a genre that rarely ever treats the villain body count as something to care about.

The film also takes the father-daughter storyline and elevates it by swelling to the emotional reunion- and then creating sophisticated conflict between the two that isn’t really satisfyingly resolved. The rest of the film is spent with the two in unease and heartache, and watching Lara wrestle with forgiving her father, and vice-versa, added a level of emotional resonance and maturity, even as Walton Goggins yelled about mummies and curses during the finale.

I could talk more about Tomb Raider’s flaws and how it is indicative of the origin-story- video-game-adventure genre overall, but honestly, I had a great time watching this film. If you like movies like National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark– and you know who you are- then I really think you’ll enjoy this Tomb Raider. It’s a step in the right direction for the franchise which I hope will get a sequel, and I’m excited for Alicia Vikander to get to play this character again and get more roles in the future. Sometimes, fun movies can be fun, and Tomb Raider is just that.

-Madeleine D

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Annihilation for Kids: A Wrinkle in Time

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I read A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle somewhere around third grade, after I had finished the Harry Potter series and a relative had said, “Hey, you should read this. You and the author have the same name!”

I don’t really remember anything about the book, except I found it too weird for my tastes. Anyone who knows the book well though will tell you it’s a difficult, near impossible story to translate to any other medium. It’s a strange mixture of L’Engle’s curiosity and imagination, religious inquiries and intellectual ponderings. It follows Meg Murry (in the film played by a formidable Storm Reid), a sullen, troubled thirteen year old, whose scientist father (Chris Pine, cementing his status as the best Chris in Hollywood) has been missing for four years. Three immortal beings- Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), and Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) come to Meg and her friend Calvin (Levi Miller) and little brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) to travel dimensions to find Dr. Murry and bring him home.

What is most striking about A Wrinkle in Time is, even if you didn’t know there was a woman directing, you would likely still discern an intrinsically feminine quality to the film. To be clear, while there aren’t a lot of films directed by women, the majority I’ve seen do not play as obviously made by a woman, just like not every film made by a man is clearly so.

But it did feel like taking off blinders I didn’t even realize I had on to see a fantasy film from the female perspective. Sure, women are prolific in fantasy and science fiction literature, but this hasn’t translated to film yet. This is the first film I’ve seen with this “feminine fantasy” angle, and based on A Wrinkle in Time, I would characterize it as having a character-driven plot, the main arc coming from the protagonist finding inner strength (over, say, an external weapon or source of strength), emphasis on teamwork and collaboration, and women and people of color in leading, powerful roles.

Obviously these aren’t clear cut, and plenty of other fantasy stories driven by men do similar things, but here is what I see, and what I think will, as the genre hopefully grows, continue to develop.

See, A Wrinkle in Time is less concerned with adapting the novel and more concerned with giving the archetypal, mythological coming of age story to a young black girl. That is clearly the story Ava DuVernay is most interested in telling. That is the best story in the film, but unfortunately it is buried under the plot and visuals that have to be translated from the book. The best fantasy is always concerned with characters, but A Wrinkle in Time gives the hero’s journey to someone who doesn’t usually get it, and that’s an exciting development.

With that hero’s journey comes finding inner strength, which is usually a facet of fantasy. However, often the hero has to find an object that becomes his source of strength, or the strength within him is of a magical kind. Following in the steps of Moana and Frozen (also written by A Wrinkle in Time’s screenwriter Jennifer Lee) the climax is about Meg using the power of love for her brother to stop the It (the antagonist). She tells Charles Wallace about memories they have together, how much she loves him, and how he’s shown love to her.

I love this new alternative to the climactic battle. I hope other films starring guys will be able to start partaking in it too, because violence being the ending to all big blockbusters is… concerning. And particularly for a children’s movie, showing that compassion and love is stronger than violence is the message I would think we want to be taking away. So often good trumps evil is the theme of a story, but when that is only expressed through violence, then being good becomes aligned with being the better fighter. That’s not the message that creates compassionate, empathetic children.

Now with all of the praise for this film, I do need to say that despite all of the best intentions in the world, it is not a good film in the technical and story aspect. Thematically, it’s endearing. From a cohesive, well-paced and constructed filmmaking perspective? It’s a mess. The script seems like a rough draft, with character that say everything, never trusting the audience to understand its nuance. For example, in one of the opening scenes, a teacher character loudly tells another teacher something along the lines of: “Meg Murray’s father has been gone for four years. Meg is very troubled because of it. Her father was working on a science experiment to travel dimensions.”

And as kids around Meg say mean things, out pop Demi Lovato and DJ Khaled singing “Today I saw a rainbow in the rain, saying I could do anything, I believe in me” as if we didn’t get the message. I guess it was restraint that they didn’t along sing, “I better go save my father now, time to defeat some evil” in case someone didn’t understand what was about to happen. It’s a poorly made film, but can earnestness and good intentions save it?

I compare this film to Annihilation because both hit similar emotional beats. In both films, the protagonist is not particularly likeable, has lost a man close to her to the Science Thing, and goes on a mission to find him, discovering more about herself as she goes along. Both also have trippy visuals and an unusual climax that takes places in a cave with a clone.

Unlike Annihilation, though, this movie is not about self-destruction and its toll on people. It’s about our flaws, and how they can be our strengths, and the power of love. If personified, it would be a giant hug. In fact, I’ve never seen as much hugging in any movie as I’ve see in this one.

And that might cause some to scoff, or look down at the film for its childishness. And yes, it is childish in some sense. But its fascination with love is not, and I want more films like A Wrinkle in Time. Films that love unabashambly, have no cynicism or limits, and display feminine strength, something we still sorely lack, even in the age of #MeToo and girlpower. While more films are featuring women, rarely are those stories being told by women, and often those women are asked to be more masculine in order to be strong and worth the audience’s time. I want more protagonists like Meg, families like the Murrys, and the directors with the imagination and heart of Ava DuVernay.

And yes, I want films that are not terribly paced, oddly filmed and edited, sloppily scored, or badly written. I wish A Wrinkle in Time appealed to a broader audience, and showed the same deliberate, delicate filmmaking DuVernay has proven herself masterful of.

However, it is clear, and she has confirmed in interviews, that DuVernay made this film for children, and particularly girls of color. And I think this is the kind of film that should be supported. Hopefully movies like this will become better, but take your kids to see it, because this is a lot more hopeful, heartfelt, imaginative, and purposeful than 90% of kid entertainment available. And if you don’t want to sit through it yourself, sneak over to the next theater and watch Annihilation and get an adult-version of the experience.

Or, maybe not. Maybe A Wrinkle in Time will have a message and hug for you, too.

-Madeleine D