The transition from one medium to another is always a hard one. There’s plenty of examples of failures, but occasionally something like No Country for Old Men comes along, which was fantastic as both a book and a movie. But while the move from book to movie is tried and tested, we have yet to see a videogame movie score anything more than a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, with the highest yet being Prince of Persia.
Yesterday, Warner Bros. released its first official trailer for the Tomb Raider movie. And though I’ve had this discussion with myself many times, it has gotten this writer thinking about the problems of moving from videogame to movie.
It’s too early to tell whether the new Tomb Raider movie will be any good. It’s based on the 2013 videogame of the same name, so we might know something of the story it presents, but that isn’t saying much. Playing through a story is much different from watching one unfold before you. Alicia Vikander in the lead role is promising (Jason Bourne, Ex Machina), but director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) is relatively unknown. And though trailers can be hard to read, there’s a few moments that strike this writer as a little cheesy and/or ingenuous (e.g. obligatory slow-mo scenes).
If Tomb Raider is going to be a success, there’s a few problems I think it will run into.
A Substitute for the First-Person Experience
Videogames are inherently active. By putting the player in the lead role, videogames allow for a story experience that is largely firsthand, the players themselves developing a connection with the world around them by being entirely responsible for running, jumping and shooting their way through it themselves. Movies are something of a step below, as you yourself don’t necessarily feel bad-ass after watching someone else defeat, onscreen, the hoard of enemies you beat in-game.
Part of the experience of Tomb Raider is playing as Lara Croft. And if the movie is going to be true to the game, it’s going to have find some form of a substitute. Usually, this means making the character engaging enough to be relatable, even from the outside. But this is where another problem comes in, in that most videogames today are fairly notorious for their bad writing. (As are their critics, in what may prove to be a rather ironic comment.) While videogames might not always need a lot in the way of narrative substance, movies generally do, which is a lot of work for the screenwriters. Unless you happen to like Michael Bay films.
Finding a Fan Base
The 2013 Tomb Raider videogame was a huge success. It’s definitely one of the series’ biggest hits, but that doesn’t necessarily point to a parallel situation for the movie. One of the biggest draws of the videogame was its gameplay mechanics; how it felt to move through the world and struggle to survive. The movie won’t have that same appeal; it can’t have that same appeal, being a passive form. What 2018’s Tomb Raider has to find is people that love its character and that appreciate the series. Which may be hard, given today’s social climate.
It’s an unfortunate truth that Tomb Raider has historically run into the problem of being an ‘SMG’ series; made for the ‘standard male gamers.’ While 2013’s Tomb Raider was largely a decent break from the series’ troubled past, there were still some issues. The new film seeks to represent that new direction; presenting Lara Croft in a format that seems to have much less sex appeal, focusing more on her traits as a character and her role in a story (assuming these aren’t buried under action scenes). But one has to wonder if the series will truly move ahead, and whether there are enough fans (and believers) of the supposed ‘new agenda’ to spend money on an uncertain film.
If Tomb Raider is to succeed as a movie, it paradoxically needs to move beyond the videogame. It’s questionable whether there’s enough fans of the videogame to adequately fill theatre seats, and the writing needs to be taken in a different direction if it’s to going make a two-hour production. The true test of its success will be whether the movie can appeal to those who haven’t played any of the videogames, who haven’t had much interest in the series before.
A strong transition should be enough to stand on its own. And if Tomb Raider can find a way to solve these problems, it just might be the first good videogame film.