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Oddball Review: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003)

Oh boy.

I may have taken this Tomb Raider thing a little too far. See, it was the first film being played at a friend’s house last weekend that made me decide to pick up Tomb Raider: Underworld (reviewed here) for my Xbox 360. But I have to be honest, here: Going a step further and renting the first film’s sequel, Lara Craft: Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (Two colons? Really?) was a mistake.

This film is simply horrible. Oh, I tried to watch it through to completion. Tried and failed — two nights in a row. I’ve come within 40 minutes of the end, but I just can’t sit there and watch the minutes tick by on the clock when I realize that I could be doing something more productive with my time instead, like watching paint dry. Or to be more serious, actually playing — not just watching — an actually good bit of Tomb Raider goodness in the form of Underworld. Because let’s face it, Cradle of Life has about as much to do with Tomb Raider as 2008’s Knight Rider reboot had to do with the original series. (That’s “zero,” for the uninitiated.)

Both of the Tomb Raider films star Angelina Jolie, in case you hadn’t heard, who herself is a very good approximation of the fictional Lara Croft. The first film, released in 2001, mostly saw her exploring vast ancient ruins in a variety of global locales. It was, in fact, much like the games themselves — albeit with more than a little Hollywood suspension of disbelief required. While that film looked and felt a lot like some of the recent Tomb Raider games, 2003’s Cradle of Life looks more like a crazy quilt of bad action movie cliches and homages all smashed together in completely incongruous ways — a crazy quilt that just happens to star Angelina Jolie with an English accent. On a Tomb Raider level, the feel is all wrong. On a compelling movie level, the feel is just plain AWOL.

Speaking of accents, I basically can’t understand half of the dialogue in Cradle of Life. Part of it is the fact that the 5.1 surround audio downmixes horribly on my TV’s built-in stereo speakers, burying what was formerly the center channel dialog so far below the soundtrack and hard effects that it’s almost impossible to hear. (I’ve shelved my home theater system for the purpose of uncluttering our house while we try to sell it, a decision that becomes more grudging each passing weekend.) Complicating matters is the brogue of Scottish co-star Gerard Butler (300), making it almost necessary for me to turn the subtitles on. But as I explained to my wife earlier today while discussing this cinematic abomination, “Every time I’m tempted to reach for the subtitle button, I decide not to bother because it doesn’t matter what anybody is saying anyhow.”

The plot is simply ridiculous, which is saying a lot considering it’s Tomb Raider. The temple where Alexander the Great kept his most valuable treasures has been located beneath the surface of the ocean, and within, Lara finds a glowing orb that turns out to be a map to Pandora’s Box in the fabled Cradle of Life — the magical place on Earth where life first began. Apparently, as the legend goes, Pandora’s Box contains “anti-life,” a plague more deadly than any other. Of course, some eeeeeevil businessman who makes a living creating super-deadly viruses and selling the antidotes swoops in and steals the orb, because he wants to market the deadly plague himself. MI6 gets wind of this and sends Lara and her ex-comrade Terry Sheridan (Gerard Butler) off to stop the Bad Man and recover the orb. Yada yada.

It’s apparent almost immediately that Cradle of Life is like the youngest brother in a whole family of action movie siblings, and it desperately wants to be the big bros that it looks up to. Big Bro #1 is Mission: Impossible 2, and from this brother, Cradle borrows pretty much the entire storyline. Same deadly virus, same terrorist mastermind, same desperate rush to capture the threat first before the bad man can unleash it upon the earth. Big Bro #2 is Die Hard, from which entire set pieces are aped. There’s a scene in Bad Man’s secret laboratory (which is hidden, believe it or not, behind a door with a “Pardon Our Dust” sign on it in the middle of a mega-mall in Hong Kong) that is an absolute rip of the scene in Die Hard where barefooted McClane and Hans’ bosom buddies square off in a deserted office, Hans goes “Schieß dem Fenster!” and glass flies all over the place. Same exact thing happens here. Except the villain isn’t barefooted, he just gets distracted by the breaking glass long enough for Lara to walk up and pistol-whip him into submission. What cunning! What tact!

Furthermore, every body movement in the entire film is either rendered in that horrible, stylized choppy slo-mo, overdubbed with incredibly overdone foley SWOOSHes and WHIFFs, or both. Lara pulls out a gun? WHOOOSSHH, like a huge I-beam just flew over your head. Bad guy drops the empty clip from his pistol? Ch-ch-ch-choppy slo-mo ensues as the clip hits the floor with a reverb-laden KIIIIHHHHHHH CHHHHHOOOOOCKKKK and you hear the Six Million Dollar Man Noise play in your head. Terry and Lara share a typical cliched grab-ass love scene despite the lack of any and all on-screen chemistry? Well, okay, there wasn’t any zany foley there, but after hearing so much of it, you can bet my mind filled in the blanks. Being in possession of plenty of over-the-top foley whiffs, whacks and bangs, I could “enhance” the love scene myself for comedic effect, but this movie just isn’t worth the expense of effort.

Hollywood has a history of taking liberties with reality to put on a compelling show, which is perfectly fine except when the end result isn’t all that compelling. Absurd uses of technology is one of the most glaringly obvious examples for a technophile such as myself. There’s one particularly nutty scene here where the Bad Man’s minions are creating a digital map of the fabled orb with a fancy “laser scanner.” Lara busts in and tries to stop it, but Bad Man himself shows up to apprehend her. She has just a few seconds to react before she’s caught.

So with her last free moments, Lara aims her trademark pistols not at the laser scanner, but at the kludgy old CRT monitor that’s currently displaying the scan’s progress bar. Great, shooting the display will accomplish…uh, nothing really! Even worse, a moment after shooting it out, we see a glimpse of it in the background, still perfectly intact and still displaying that progress bar. Nice continuity.

At the risk of piling on, don’t even get me started on the scene where Lara uses a common flip phone and TV satellite dish to set up a video conference call to her home base, complete with fancy UI, file transfer capability and dialup modem sound effects that take place while the call is already connected. In the process of which, I might add, she somehow taps into a TV for video output by attaching a small alligator clip to a fully sheathed insulated wire. Did MacGyver do stuff that silly?

About the only time a genuine smile erupted as I watched Cradle of Life was the moment I realized that Lara’s housekeeper/butler guy Hillary is played by Chris Barrie, better known as Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf. “RIMMER!” I kept shouting. Oh, if he had actually been playing the character of Rimmer, it would have been a much more entertaining movie. (Except that Barrie is only on screen for a total of about thirty seconds, I think, so maybe not so much.)

I still have those aforementioned 40 minutes of film left to watch. Where I left off, Lara and a friend whom we’ve never seen before and thus don’t care about in the slightest had just discovered the Cradle of Life and, in less than a minute, had driven their PLEASE BUY THE ALL-NEW JEEP RUBICON directly to the site of Pandora’s Box. Right about then I decided I wanted to go get a drink, so I got up and didn’t come back.

If I were you, I’d just go for the drink and skip the movie entirely. You’ll be better off.

Oddball Verdict: Just play one of the recent Tomb Raider games instead. Like this one.