Though one of the earlier entries in the "lets turn a popular videogame character into a movie franchise!" trend infecting Hollywood, 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' is neither the best nor the worst of its kind. It's one of those films that sort of lives in its own precarious bubble: as a stand-alone film, it doesn't really make a lot of sense, yet as a cinematic expansion of the videogame's universe it doesn't add much to the mythology, either. Though it does have an actual plot and characters, they mingle uneasy with all the action and the gadgets and the relentless fawning over the "iconicity" of Lara Croft. So much so that 'Tomb Raider' never quite satisfies as either a mindless videogame shoot-'em up movie, nor as an emotionally complex, rewarding narrative.
Perhaps that is a foolish thing for me to say. Certainly, few went into 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' expecting the videogame-movie equivalent of 'Ordinary People.' And audiences sure seemed to eat the film up: 'Tomb Raider' opened to a strong $47 million opening weekend, going on to gross over $130 million domestically, plus another $143 million internationally. Such figures are even more impressive when you consider that at the time Angelina "I am not Brangelina!" Jolie was not yet an A-list star with a proven track record of opening films. But the fanboys turned out in droves, and the action, however mindless, seemed to be enough to keep audiences if not wowed than at least entertained.
Still, watching the flick again on this new HD DVD, it doesn't really hold up once the action razzmatazz wears off. After watching scene after mind-numbing scene of impossibly dexterous Mistress Croft doing physically-improbable acrobatics, blasting robots and outwitting all manner of baddies, I started to wonder just what the heck the point of the whole thing was. Sort of a female Indy Jones only with the kind of physical stealth and skill akin to a superhero, she isn't given much to do that is original -- she hunts down various ancient artifacts with an anthropological imperative in mind, while also attempting to heal a long-damaged relationship with her dear old pop ('Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,' anyone?). Okay, that could have made for a fun bit of adventure, however derivative (it worked for 'National Treasure'), but 'Tomb Raider' never quite finds the correct balance between action and intrigue, nor creates fully fleshed-out characters versus pale archetypes.
Perhaps I'm being too hard on 'Tomb Raider,' as I did find it an entertaining enough diversion the second time around. But can the character of Lara Croft can't really survive outside of the videogame world? Her basic story arc just doesn't have enough resonance to sustain a full-fledged film series, which I suppose was borne out in the less-than-stellar returns for the 2003 sequel, 'Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life.' Barely scraping up $65 million at the domestic box office, it quickly deep-sixed any hopes for a long-running blockbuster franchise and now forces the original 'Tomb Raider' to stand up pretty much on its own wobbly, CGI-addled legs. Unfortunately, unless you want nothing more than a couple of hours of brain-dead action, you'd be better off just renting 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' or 'National Treasure' again.
Among Paramount's first wave HD DVD releases (which include 'Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,' 'Sahara' and 'Sleepy Hollow'), 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' is neither the strongest nor the weakest of the bunch. Granted, it looks perfectly fine and offers a fairly decent upgrade over the standard DVD release, but it also suffers a few slings and arrows which keeps it from really delivering the goods.
The main problem with this transfer is that it is inconsistent. Though the print is in good shape with no major defects, it does vary greatly in terms of softness and grain. I know that film of course will always look more gritty than digital source material, but it can be distracting when sporadic bursts of grain are so prominent from shot-to-shot. Color reproduction is not a problem, however, with smooth hues that don't suffer from any apparent inconsistency or noise. Fleshtones are also generally accurate, though some select scenes appear intentionally skewed (such as Lara's dream sequences, which appear a tad more surreal). Also spotty is this transfer's level of detail -- I could detect fine subtleties in some shots, where the sense of three-dimensionality was almost breathtaking, whereas others looked quite flat. Overall, the second half of the film is more impressive than the first half, especially the climax which looks terrific. Still, while this transfer is not a home run and despite its irregularities, it lands squarely in the middle quality tier of HD DVD presentations I've seen thus far.
A bit more perky than the video transfer are the Dolby Digital-Plus and DTS 5.1 surround tracks included. Listening to 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' on HD DVD is certainly an enveloping, engaging experience, with plenty of whiz-bang fun to make you forget the film is about as nourishing as a Hostess Cupcake.
As you would expect, 'Tomb Raider' is almost wall-to-wall action, and those are the sequences that really come alive. Imaging is excellent on both the DTS and Dolby Digital-Plus tracks (though I give the latter the edge in my direct comparisons), with some very effective directionality between channels and even a couple of complete 360-degree pans around the soundfield (note the film's climax, which boasts some pretty neat circular sound design). Dynamic range also holds up very well for a five-year-old film, with very natural sounding mid- and high-range, and very forceful but tight low bass. Graeme Revell's score is also very interesting, being that it largely eschews dramatic motifs for more industrial and ambient sounds, so you often can't detect the connection points between the effects and the score. However, his nearly atonal compositions sometimes overpower the rest of the mix (including background dialogue) which can distract. Otherwise, 'Tomb Raider' holds up well as an A-class audio presentation.
Another direct port of the standard DVD release, Paramount has stocked this HD DVD with plenty of goodies. Unfortunately, given the fact that the second film in the series tanked and the Lara Croft "franchise" is now pretty much defunct, most of the material here comes off as pretty dated, if still comprehensive.
Things kick off with an audio commentary by director Simon West, and it is a pretty informative track. He is a very talkative guy who doesn't leave any dead air, which is always a plus on a solo track. He also has much praise for Angelina Jolie, who endured great physical hardship in turning Lara Croft into a believable, flesh and blood movie character. (West also laments the challenges in hiding Jolie's numerous tattoos -- thank god for costume design and CGI!) He also is articulate about the film's original script difficulties, as well as the numerous special effects sequences. Worth a listen for diehard fans of the movie.
The heart of the supplements, however, are the five making-of featurettes. Running over 75 minutes, this stuff is quite substantial, though since the movie is now over five years old so it does feel a bit old hat. Still, there is much to enjoy here: "Digging Into 'Tomb Raider'" (29 minutes) is a good place to start, with your basic overview of the production loaded with lots of on-set interviews and behind the scenes footage. "The Visual Effects of 'Tomb Raider'" (20 minutes) and "The Stunts of 'Tomb Raider'" (9 minutes) compliment each other nicely, delving into all of the film's big action set pieces, though most of the time is spent dissecting West's favorite sequence, the "bungie ballet." There is also "Crafting Lara Croft" (7 minutes), which provides proof that even Angelina Jolie needs to diet sometimes, while "Are You Game?" (8 minutes) offers some much-needed background on the videogame phenomenon that led to the production of the movie.
Up next are a collection of Deleted Scenes, plus the film's Alternate Main Title Sequence. The deleted footage runs about 7 minutes and is all character development, and for once I actually wish some of this stuff made it into the film as it would have offered some much-needed expansion of the various character's interrelationships. As for the Alternate Title sequence, it runs 2 minutes but didn't thrill me that much. Still, somewhat interesting.
Rounding out the set are some promo items, including a music video for U2's "Elevation" (a la the "'Tomb Raider' Mix," with a bunch of annoying clips and sound bites from the movie) along with the film's theatrical trailer and teaser, both presented in full 1080p high-definition video.
I didn't find 'Lara Croft: Tomb Raider' to be a particularly memorable film the second time around even on HD DVD, though the character and the videogame continues to have its cult following. So if you count yourself among them, Paramount has put together a solid if unexceptional HD DVD release for the film. The transfer is good but not great, the soundtrack well above average, and the extras copious if rather dated. If you already own the standard DVD release of the film you may want to rent this one only; otherwise, first-time buyers can proceed to the checkout counter with a bit more confidence.