Sunday, December 27, 2015

Reviews, Ridiculous to Sublime

Finally got around to watching the first Tomb Raider movie (saw some of it once, on a transatlantic flight...and fell asleep in the middle of it). Odd. It does a lot right, has a great look, a good energy, and there's a strong sense that everyone involved was enjoying themselves. But despite all of that, it is oddly...boring.

Perhaps it is the lack of strong music. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider had various problems coming up with a composer and the man who finally landed in the hot seat had only two weeks to work. Under similar conditions James Horner came up with Aliens, but Tomb Raider sounds as if made drop-needle from whatever euro-pop was lying around the room. It lacks grandeur, it lacks a linking theme, it lacks development. This is a film that could use the leit-motif treatment (as well as the rest of that Wagnerian grammar).

Jolie is wonderful. And the film does extremely well at translating the feel for the games, especially the kind of gymnastic action, without resorting to wirework and CGI and otherwise breaking (as so many action films do) the suspension of disbelief. Obviously she can't leap about like her game avatar, but although more realistic and plausible the physical stunts are still strong and entertaining.

The plot, on the other hand, also suffers from a lack of clarity. In this case I think it isn't so much a lack of focus as a lack of the concrete. Odd as it may be to say, there is more archaeology and history in the worst of the games than there is in the movie. The Illuminati are named. That's about it. There's not even a name given, much less a culture or history or religious tradition for the big temple set-piece (using some real places in Cambodia as background). Nothing is seen of Venice but the interior of a building. One bit of some script is translated by Lara (or rather, pretty much read outright in situ by the light of a chemlight) but there isn't even enough to define what language it might be.

In astronomy the movie does far worse. A grand conjunction is an important part of the plot, is shown from space, observed via telescope on Earth, and diagrammed by a giant orrery...except in none of these depictions do the film-makers appear to know which planets are involved, how many planets are in the solar system, or even what they look like. In all these depictions, they are a line of nearly identical yellow balls, with the sole exception that one has a ring.

(There is a vague moment in the orrery scene where some character interacts briefly with what might be a group of satellites arrayed at 90 degrees to the plane of the ecliptic, which is oddly suggestive of Uranus... but even that is giving the set design, as wonderful looking as the contraption is, too much credit).

Similar incoherence follows the McGuffin; what does it do, how it works. With the stakes so nebulous, the way to achieve the goal so ill-defined, and the map and clues non-existent, the entire struggle is pretty much, "Stuff happens, then some other stuff, then Lara wins."

Here's hoping the second movie is as much better as word has it is.

On the other side of the First Century silver boar-horse C type, I'm in the middle of the second Samantha Sutton book by James Jordan and they keep getting better and better. Cambridge and its surrounds are the setting for this one, and it is a Cambridge with all the hoary traditions and strange characters and long murky history of Douglas Adams. And a mystery and struggle over an archaeological site being excavated in haste ahead of a construction project; a struggle that pits not just cultural heritage against modern development, archaeologists versus looters (rather, the semi-respectable metal-detectorists of the English scene), and antiquities department against the upstart and more anthropologically-minded barbarians who study home-grown, pre-Roman cultures.

Jacobs does push, of course, allowing access in places his heroes really shouldn't have, bending rules they really should know better than to bend, and throwing in a few narrow scrapes that more should really be made more of (by local law enforcement, among others). But he really, really knows his settings, and he knows his archaeology, and he presents an honest appraisal of how the field works and some of its conflicts and hot topics as well as some of its problems...while keeping the narrative within range of a young reader.

I am all for these books, and hope I can find the third (and fourth, when it comes out).

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