Treasure high jinks

The release of Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (the second movie based on the computer game) has been timed to coincide with Heritage Day. Not, I would have thought, a good idea — not if you ask what the movie says about archaeological integrity. Lara Croft is a sort of Indiana Jones figure who goes around the world stealing artefacts from ancient monuments and, in the course of that enterprise, usually causing the destruction of those monuments.
She has improved since the first movie — nothing that gets rubbished in the new movie is directly her fault. But the movie’s acquisitive, cavalier attitude is still not a good message for Heritage Day.

Lady Lara Croft is of British upper-class extraction, with a manor in the countryside and apparently unlimited funds at her disposal. Until she gets asked by the British Secret Service to save the world, her search for ancient artefacts is motivated, it seems, by pure greed — the kind of greed that propelled the aristocratic tomb and temple raiders of the colonial era. Sometimes they claimed they were keeping such treasures safe from the barbarians they stole them from. Greece still wants its marbles back. And half of ancient Egypt is sitting in museums in Europe. Not a good Heritage Day message, either.

Speaking of Africa, this instalment of Lara’s adventures ends up somewhere in the vicinity of Mt Kilimanjaro, where the titular “cradle of life” is to be found. But this notion has more in common with the crackpot theories of Erich von Däniken than any serious archaeological idea. Lara is not looking for the forebears of Mrs Ples in the Great Rift Valley. No, she’s climbing a spooky mountain to find the place the folks from outer space first touched down to provide our simian ancestors with the spark of life. Or something.

Africa is, at any rate, one of many locations in a movie that whizzes at a dizzying rate from Greece to Kazakhstan to China. It has more locations than a James Bond movie — or even a BBC travel special. It has lots of action, hand-to-hand combat and so forth, which is exciting, and a certain amount of supernatural hocuspocus. There is a supervillain bent on releasing a host of deadly diseases into the world. He’s a sort of über-Wouter Basson, responsible, we are informed, “for every act of bioterror in the last 15 years”. Yikes! Why he should want to do this, or what his background is, we are not told. This all exists in a mythical narrative realm, patched together from the scraps of a host of other movies, in which such supervillainy is as taken for granted as the fact that upper-crust English miladies spend their leisure time raiding tombs.

That’s when they’re not practising their markswomanship while riding side-saddle, or hitching a ride from the depths of the sea to its surface on a shark’s fin. These are not the moments at which Angelina Jolie, as Lara Croft, tries to humanise the two-dimensional computer-generated figurine she is based on. Jolie swishes her long ponytail, pouts her overdeveloped lips, and cracks the odd laconic joke in Bond style. Mostly, though, the dialogue seems to belong to another era. “He’s already decoding the orb!” says Lady Croft. “Bugger!”

There is some life, however, in the relationship between Lara and her erstwhile lover and fellow tomb raider, played by Terry Sheridan. Their sparring is the most lively part of the film — if you discount the fights. Pity they didn’t get to do some real rumpy-pumpy, though; the movie already has an age-limit of no under 10 because of its violence, so why not give us a little more flesh too? Sorry, I forgot — sex is worse than violence. At any rate, the frustrated interaction between Lara and Terry has some emotional life, at least; the actors are trying to do something a computer can’t.

For the rest of it, The Cradle of Life might as well be written, directed, produced and acted by a computer. It’s slick, fast, exciting in a mindless sort of way, reminiscent of a thousand other action-adventure movies, more-or-less enjoyable and completely forgettable. It has no real content whatsoever. That clever movie-making computer, though, were it to make the next Lara Croft flick, would need to learn a little about pace. It would have to be told about rhythm, about how a plot should have highs and lows; how a movie should do more than just batter the audience into submission. By the end of The Cradle of Life, I, for one, felt like one of those ancient treasures Lara Croft used to pulverise with such abandon.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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