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Tomb Raider: Knowing Your Audience

by John Finnegan |

Tomb Raider will be released on Blu Ray shortly, and I'm looking forward to watching it again.  When I saw it in the cinema earlier this year, I was quietly optimistic that it would be a breath of fresh air for video game adaptations, which, let's face it, don't have a strong track record for successfully crossing over onto the big screen.

How could it fail? After all, it was a direct adaptation of the 2013 franchise reboot, written by Rihanna Pratchett and wonderfully constructed by game developers Square Enix. The game was a remarkable rite of passage story which opened with Lara Croft desperately trying to escape a cave on a desolate island, ravaged by a storm and searching for her friends. She had never taken a life, never thrown a punch by all accounts and was forced into a terrifying situation that changed her slowly throughout her adventure. It was a long game, and so her transition was a slow and natural one. By the end, the words 'A Survivor is Born' graced the screen and players had witnessed the rebirth of one of pop culture's most enduring female characters.

I didn't expect the movie counterpart to capture this exactly, as I understand they are two different mediums. There's a reason why most video game adaptations fail to capture an audience. But I did expect the movie to follow the general beats of the original story - to realise what made the 2013 game so successful and to capitalise on that. Instead, we were left with a mediocre treasure hunt story and a bizarre reimagining of the Pratchett and Square Enix's 2013 story.

Now, like I said, I was quietly optimistic for this movie, and I didn't feel let down. I enjoyed the adventure, but I just wish the adventure started sooner. And that's the problem with the movie - it failed to understand what audiences were coming to see. We wanted the island, the storm which resulted in her boat crashing on the rocks. We wanted to see her character arc - from innocent academic to violent survivor. And to be fair, we got some of this, but not as much as we needed. What we got a lot of was Lara cycling about London delivering fast food and making small talk with characters who would play no role in the overall story. We saw boardrooms and Croft Manor and camcorder footage of her father. We spent more time in a London pawn shop then we did gathering our bearings on the island. I say 'we' because that's precisely what cinema is all about - it's not just Lara going on this adventure, it's the audience as well. We identify with our protagonist and so we feel more connected to them on the adventure later. The filmmakers felt we needed 30-40 minutes to help us identify with the protagonist when in actual fact, we only needed five.

One of the things the game did so well was to understand that players would come to care about Croft throughout the game. They didn't work to win us over because we were stuck with her. That stuff would come naturally. Instead, the filmmakers and screenwriters of the film spend the entire first act helping us to care about Croft and her personal struggles before she ever steps foot on the boat, rather than using these as moments of dramatic pause throughout the island adventure.

There is no reason why this film couldn't have started and ended on the island - just like the game. We could have learned everything we needed to know along the way without of the first act distractions, such as pointless MMA training sessions and cycling races. Say what you want about these scenes, and how they establish her skills, but to me, all they did was remove the chance for her to learn these skills later on.

If it sounds like I'm frustrated by this, it's because I really am. The game has so many set pieces ajaw-droppinging spectacle moments that the movie could have taken advantage of. They already lifted the parachute moment right out of the game, so what about the radio tower scene or the old second world war bunkers sets? There was no shortage of story and character development material and it would have served the character and the overall movie in a much better way.

Okay, so we don't just want a copy and paste of the game right? After all, what would be the point? But I don't think the first act as it stands is any better. You need to know your audience - and maybe I'm just projecting what I would like to see here - but I think it's a safe bet that, given the choice, audiences would prefer far off landscapes with adventure and intrigue to central London - especially when that set piece takes up a quarter of the movie.

What this boils down to is filmmakers tackling reboots and adaptations without an understanding of why the original stories worked so well. A great screenwriter, producer or director needs to anticipate why the audience is coming to see this film in the first place. Don't assume that because it is a movie about Lara Croft that her presence alone will be enough to satisfy them, especially when you are daring to reimagine such a beloved video game franchise.

Tomb Raider is a satisfying movie, and I look forward to watching it again when it comes out on blu ray - though I'll probably just buy the digital copy and save it for when I'm travelling. I hope they make more - but I hope they get to the heart of what makes the franchise work so well - a slow burner rite of passage that proves 'slow' doesn't mean boring or uninteresting. One that has meaningful action sequences that test the character outside of her comfort zone - not scenes that show her training in a gym or doing the rounds on her bike.

I mean, they even put this stuff in the trailer!

(Images Copyright: Warner Brothers/ Square Enix)


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