Director Roar Uthaug has cited Raiders of the Lost Ark as an influence on his movie Tomb Raider, which is pretty obvious. Even if the Lara Croft video games weren’t mostly inspired by the Indiana Jones movies, they come out of the same tradition of archaeologist-as-treasure-hunter adventures.
But Uthaug’s main inspirations in making the rebooted game adaptation were fellow franchise reboots like Casino Royale and the Dark Knight trilogy and other big franchises helmed by genre guys gone Hollywood such as Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings series. But Tomb Raider is much smaller than all of those influences.
For this week’s Movies to Watch list, I’m leaning more on picks that actually fit the scope, tone, themes, and plot of Tomb Raider, including the Indiana Jones kind of stuff — and one Indiana Jones movie, in fact.
‘Pimpernel’ Smith (1941)
Mosts lists of influences on and precursors to the Indiana Jones franchise overlook this take on “The Scarlet Pimpernel” updated to be set during World War II. But the whole Nazis are the enemy idea is straight out of the adaptation, which was produced and directed by Leslie Howard, who also stars as the titular archaeologist. The plot involves him working with the Nazis on digs to find Aryan artifacts, but he’s also on an anti-Nazi mission to free people from concentration camps.
Besides the easy link to the Indiana Jones movies (if only Indiana was so admirable a hero), ‘Pimpernel’ Smith is recalled specifically during Tomb Raider for the part about ‘Pimpernel’ Smith being a liberator. In the new movie, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) similarly becomes a hero to the oppressed and imprisoned when she and Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) free all the slave laborers working for villain Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and the Trinity organization.
There are a number of other classics adventure films to mention along with this one, including two others more often referenced as Indiana Jones precursors. One is the 1937 King Solomon’s Mines, which is the first adaptation of the iconic Allan Quartermain adventure novel. That one changes the plot a bit to involve a female lead who winds up having to find her father (rather than a brother, as in the novel, or husband, as in the 1950 film) during a search for a hidden diamond mine. The 1985 adaptation also follows this change.
Then there’s Valley of the Kings, a 1954 spectacle about a woman who teams up with an adventuring archeologist to find the entombed treasure her late father had been obsessed with finding — but as in the case of Tomb Raider, there are nefarious others who are also on the same quest.
The basis for the plot of Tomb Raider, particularly its focus on the tomb of Himiko, comes from the video games, where the ancient Yamatai queen is more of a supernatural adversary. But the Himiko character and legend as depicted in the games and movie are based on a real historical figure. Himiko ruled around the 3rd century and so concrete record of her life is complicated by various sources and interpretations of those sources, including claims of magic.
She is also subject of this fantastic Japanese film from Masahiro Shinoda that could be compared to the work of Alejandro Jodorowski but also probably just has roots in Japanese theatrical arts such as Kabuki and Butoh. There’s a convoluted plot, with Himiko as a shaman queen and liaison to the Sun God whose affair with her half-brother effects her powers and power, but you can watch Himiko without subtitles or attention to the narrative and just be mesmerized by the visuals, including the imaginative cinematography, production design, makeup, and costumes.
Romancing the Stone (1984)
More than just the movie that put Robert Zemeckis back in Hollywood’s good graces and gave us the wonderful first grouping of Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas, and Danny DeVito and was likely greenlit as Fox’s answer to the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark, this is a perfectly scripted (by Diane Thomas, who tragically died in a car crash a year after its release) feminine twist on the genre that pays homage to romance novels more than just pulpy action-adventure stories and harkens back to stuff like Valley of the Kings that had women protagonists linked with male heroes.
One of the great things about Tomb Raider is its lack of a romance — although there is a hint of possible attraction between Lara Croft and Lu Ren — so that aspect doesn’t apply as much to the focus of Romancing the Stone and its sequel, The Jewel of the Nile. But there’s still some antecedent material in novelists Joan Wilder (Turner), who when the going gets tough gets going to rescue her sister, barely needing the help of the adventuring smuggler Jack Colton (Douglas) for most of her treasure-hunting mission to the jungles of South America.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Yes, I’m recommending an actual Indiana Jones movie, but this one is pretty obviously in need or reference, especially for the second act of Tomb Raider with its venture into a booby-trap-filled tomb entered from the side of a rock, right down to the bridge over a deep chasm and the bad guys having the life sucked out of them in shriveling fashion and the collapse of the set piece at the end. The only difference really is that in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade the treasure is the immortality-giving Holy Grail and in Tomb Raider it’s a terrible disease-carrying corpse.
Both movies also have the main hero teamed up with their father (Sean Connery in The Last Crusade, Dominic West in Tomb Raider) in those tunnels of doom, after they’ve had to find and/or rescue the elder archeologist. That element of the plot of Tomb Raider feels so familiar these days, especially just one week after the release of A Wrinkle in Time (see my list of recommendations to watch after that for others). One critic was reminded more of the similar situation of Tron: Legacy, particularly because of how it “even has a race with bikes that leave a green trail and a soundalike soundtrack.”
Of course, The Last Crusade, like the other Indiana Jones movies, owes a lot to older adventure movies, one of the most notable (yet still fairly obscure) being the 1956 Western Secret of Treasure Mountain, which may have inspired some of the third act with its dangerous hidden caverns. And that movie was basically a remake of 1949’s Lust for Gold.
The Rock (1996)
Michael Bay’s best movie gets a recommendation for one very specific moment in Tomb Raider. And sorry for the spoiler but there’s so much else to appreciate in The Rock that one death reveal doesn’t matter. When Lara kills Vogel by shoving Himiko’s finger into his mouth and causing the disease to be ingested, that’s very similar to when Nicolas Cage’s Stanley Goodspeed takes out Gregory Sporleder’s character by forcing a VX-gas ball into his mouth and making him chomp down on it. Both villains subsequently very quickly begin to deteriorate.
Both The Rock and Tomb Raider also take a while to get to their respective islands where most of the action takes place. Each takes a detour from the plot early on to throw its hero into a chase scene through the streets of a big city. In The Rock, it’s Goodspeed in a Ferrari going after recruited prisoner John Mason (Connery again) in a Hummer in the heart of San Francisco, while in Tomb Raider Lara leads a sporting bicycle chase around London.
Rescue Dawn (2006)
Where are all the female-centric survival stories, indeed? Well, Tomb Raider does a good job of giving us one for a section of the movie when Lara escapes from Vogel’s camp and goes up against nature and a henchman before spotting her long lost father in the woods. But while there are in fact women survivalist tales in the form of horror film final girls — especially the one in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre — the Jack London type of stories and something like First Blood or this Werner Herzog drama tend to be focused on men.
Rescue Dawn, which also appeared this week on our list of great little-seen Vietnam movies, is a dramatizing remake of Herzog’s own documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly about Dieter Dengler’s escape from a Laotian prison camp in 1966. Christian Bale plays Dengler opposite Steve Zahn as a fellow prisoner of war, and their flight from the camp — like Lara’s escape from Vogel’s clutches in Tomb Raider — is only the first obstacle leading to an even more treacherous journey. Bale and Zahn were even made to survive nature themselves by the filmmaker, who had his stars actually eating worms and bugs as Dengler had to.
Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010)
My true choice for this week’s documentary pick is Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity, which goes perfectly with the situation of Himiko’s tomb. The film is about the storage of nuclear waste deep underground on an island in Finland and the concern about it this buried dangerous material being accidentally dug up before it ceases being radioactive. Presumably the Onkalo repository won’t have a door with a secret combination on it or any other elements teasing treasure hunters with the wrong idea, as Himiko’s resting place does in Tomb Raider. The reason I’m not putting Into Eternity as the highlight here is that I just recommended it last year for a similar reason on my list tied to The Mummy.
So as a consolation of sorts, here’s another Herzog film, this being one of his docs. Preferably seen in 3D on the big screen, Cave of Forgotten Dreams showcases the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in Southern France and the treasured primitive paintings inside. There is no danger in these tunnels — well, maybe to the paintings themselves if too many people were admitted inside — just the filmmaker wondering at the ancient art and and waxing about time and humanity and proto-cinema.
The Lost City of Z (2016)
For another real-life addition or alternative to your Tomb Raider enjoyment, with a story more akin to the fictional adventures of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, here’s an under-seen gem that hit US theaters last year that many fans expect to be a considered a genuine classic one day. Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, a British archeologist and explorer who went searching for a hidden ancient city said to be covered in gold. Tom Holland plays his son, who went missing along with the elder Fawcett during their trek through the Amazon in the mid 1920s.
Fawcett is often referred to as a true Indiana Jones, as is T.E. Lawrence, the hero of Lawrence of Arabia. Then there’s Gertrude Bell, who has been compared to Lawrence as well as the fictional character. She also recently received a biopic — Queen of the Desert, in which she’s portrayed by Nicole Kidman — and funny enough it’s by Herzog. Pattinson, who is also in The Lost City of Z, portrays Lawrence there. As a woman, Bell could be more aligned with Lara Croft, at least until there’s a movie made about the tomb-looting Joan Howard or singer/rapper Neneh Cherry, who apparently was one of the inspirations for the original video game character. For now, just watch the video for “Buffalo Stance.”