Despite generally negative reviews, the first Lara Croft:
Tomb Raider (2001) was such a box
office success that a sequel was inevitable. The second film, released two years later, achieved
slightly better critical reaction (though only just), but fans weren't so enthusiastic. The film
limped to profitability in overseas markets, and by the time Paramount was game to consider a
third outing, star Angelina Jolie had lost interest.
At the time, Paramount blamed the film's weak reception on issues with the latest installment of
Eidos' Lara Croft game series, "Angel of Darkness", which was so bug-ridden that gamers could
barely play it. (A senior Eidos executive resigned over the debacle.) But that was a cover story. I
wasn't a gamer, just a movie fan, and I could sense something amiss as I sat in the theater on a
hot summer's afternoon in July 2003. Jolie was still giving her all, and director Jan de Bont
brought his usual flair to the elaborate action sequences, but Cradle of Life left no impression and
no desire for a return visit. Watching it again ten years later, I see the same problems, but at least
Warner has produced a superior Blu-ray of this Paramount catalog title.
As Jan de Bont notes in his commentary, exposition can be deadly for a popcorn thriller, but let's
summarize. The Cradle of Life is where life began on Earth, and it also contains, well, anti-life,
also called "Ramante", a plague discovered by an Egyptian pharoah in 2300 B.C. when he made
the mistake of opening the box-like container housing Ramante, which decimated his army. The
legend of Pandora's Box is what Lara calls the "Sunday School version" of this tale.
An earthquake near the Greek Island of Santorini reveals the Luna Temple where Alexander the
Great stored his treasures, including a glowing orb that, when properly decoded, reveals the
location of the Cradle of Life and, with it, Pandora's Box. Lara wants it, because, well, she's Lara
Croft, raider of tombs and collector of antiquities. Her chief competition is Nobel Prize-winning
scientist Jonathan Reiss (Ciarán Hinds), a bio-terrorist who wants the anti-life contained in
Pandora's Box, because it's the ultimate weapon.
However, Reiss is one of those typical movie villains who subcontracts his dirty work to
unscrupulous partners, even though he has his own loyal underlings, notably Sean (Til
Schweiger). Reiss has hired a Chinese crime gang, the Shay-Ling, headed by Chen Lo (Simon
Yo), to seize the orb from the Luna Temple and deliver it to Reiss at his secret headquarters in
Hong Kong. Chen Lo gets the orb away from Lara, but then double-crosses Reiss to negotiate for
a higher price. This gives Lara an opening, which she takes with the full backing of Britain's
MI6, who are terrified of Reiss and his plans.
But Lara needs help finding the Shay-Ling, and she insists that MI6 get her Terry Sheridan
(Gerard Butler), a former mercenary, arms dealer and all-around scoundrel currently rotting in a
Kazakhstan prison. Sheridan also happens to be a former lover of Lara's, which causes great
concern to her loyal butler, Hillary (Christopher Barrie), and technical guru, Bryce (Noah
Taylor). MI6 isn't exactly thrilled with the idea of putting a criminal of Sheridan's talents back
into circulation, but those are Lara's terms.
All of this busy plotting is designed to create as many opportunities for spectacular action set
pieces as possible, and de Bont obviously had fun staging them, as Lara and Sheridan are
captured by the Shay-Ling, escape, intercept their handoff of the orb to Reiss, invade Reiss's
headquarters, escape again, split up, separately race Reiss to the Cradle of Life (where Lara is
guided by Djimon Hounsou's Kosa) and find Pandora's Box. There's shooting, explosions,
plunging from great heights on ropes and in flying suits, underwater diving, bizarre shark
encounters and a nightmarish subterranean trek straight out of M.C. Escher. Like Indiana Jones,
Lara Croft rarely discovers a priceless archaeological site without trashing it into rubble before
Still, the whole enterprise feels empty and soulless, because de Bont and his stable of writers (at
least five have been cited, although the Writers Guild ultimately allowed only three credits)
forgot to include one thing: a human connection. Spielberg, Lucas and Harrison Ford always
provided one for Indiana Jones. No matter how absurd or implausible his adventures became, he
was always battling for someone he cared about: Marion Ravenwood, or a family member, or a
group of kidnapped children who reminded him of Short Round. There was always an immediate
emotional connection grounding the over-the-top excess of Indiana's "Saturday morning serial"
adventures. Whatever its flaws, the first Tomb Raider film included a similar element with the
notion of Lara's completing a task begun by her father decades ago and reconnecting with him
through a kind of spiritual time travel.
The Cradle of Life has no such emotional linkage. Lara explores the Luna Temple because it is
there, and she goes after the orb because she wants it. She pursues the Shay-Ling and Reiss
merely because they took the orb from her, and she would have done so with or without MI6's
entreaties. She partners with a man she never trusts for an instant and with whom she has sexual
chemistry but no emotional connection (think Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor in The Maltese
Falcon). The fact that Lara saves humanity is just a convenient alignment between her interests
and those of the rest of the world.
None of this is the fault of Jolie, who gives as good a performance here as she did in the first
film. The weakness lies entirely in the script. Action, fantasy and sci-fi films may be popcorn
fare, but that doesn't mean they should get short shrift in their dramatic content. The greatest
popular entertainers have always understood this, which is why their films have replay value and
last for years.
Working as a cinematographer for Jan de Bont, who was a noted action cameraman before
moving up to director, must be a nerve-wracking job, but Cradle of Life's DP, David Tattersall,
came prepared, with such credits as Con Air, Vertical Limit and Die Another Day (not to mention
the first two Star Wars prequels and,
eventually, the third). For reasons that de Bont explains on
the commentary, he always shoots in anamorphic 35mm, and he praises Tattersall's ability to
supply varied and colorful lighting for the numerous sets and locations in which Cradle of Life
was filmed. The film was one of the early crop to be finished on a digital intermediate, which
helped weave together its practical sets and locations with the extensive CG enhancements.
The image on Warner's 1080p, AVC-encoded Blu-ray continues the high standards generally
seen in Warner's releases of Paramount catalog titles. Paramount's transfer is almost certainly
based on the original 2K DI, which accounts for its lack of noise, general sharpness (although a
contemporary 4K product would be somewhat sharper) and impressive detail, which may not be
immediately evident in screenshots, because de Bont's camera is always moving, which makes it
difficult to capture a frame without some degree of blur. Colors are rich, vivid and well-saturated, especially the neon lights of Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Blacks are solid, and shadow
detail is impressive, notably in dark interiors like the Luna Temple. A fine grain structure is
evident if you look closely; DI colorists had not yet reached the point where they were making
film look like HD video, and Cradle of Life is better for it.
Cradle of Life is a high-octane action film, which is no doubt why the average bitrate clocks in at
what is, for Warner, a higher-than-average bitrate of 26.39 Mbps. If there were compression
artifacts, I missed them. Still, there's a lot of free space on this BD-50, and I do wish Warner
would stop aiming for the tightest possible compression.
On the commentary, de Bont repeatedly says that he likes to have sound coming from all sides,
but not obviously so. He doesn't want the viewer distracted from the screen. The film's
aggressive soundtrack, presented as lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1, is consistent with that philosophy,
constantly engaging the entire surround array for an immersive sense of each environment
without placing a lot of showy individual sounds behind the listener that would cause one to turn
one's head. Various dialogue pans occur from left to right, but they remain in front. An especially
impressive demonstration of surround capabilities occurs when Lara finally unlocks the
mysterious orb's secret map, and it surrounds her with information. Underwater dives, structural
collapses, weapons fire, helicopters zooming, hovering and landing, motorcyles and jeeps
careering back and forth—these are just some of the many showy sound effects layered into the
The dialogue remains clear, which is no small feat, given all the other sounds with which is has
to compete, and the track's dynamic range is impressive. At higher volumes, any subwoofer that
is less than top-notch will bottom out (or worse). Alan Silvestri was given very little time to
compose a bouncy adventure score, but he delivered his usual creditable work.
The extras have been ported over from Paramount's 2003 DVD release. The only omitted items
are the DVD-ROM reproduction of the original theatrical website and bonus previews for
Paycheck and the Indiana Jones trilogy on (don't get too excited now!) DVD.
Commentary with Director Jan de Bont: De Bont's commentary is detailed and
informative about numerous technical aspects of the film, including locations, CG
elements, sound design and even photographic format. (His reasons for preferring 35mm
anamorphic photography to Super35 are interesting, since they have nothing to do with
"grain" or resolution. He also prefers it to 65mm!) He is especially entertaining when he
describes the logistical challenges of getting crew and equipment into some of the more
remote locations used for the film and when he drops such directorial tips as the
importance of scheduling love scenes early, just in case the stars fall out during a long,
Deleted/Alternate Scenes (with optional commentary by Jan de Bont) (480i; 2.35:1)
British Embassy, Nairobi (1:01)
Lara Rescued by Submarine (0:56)
MI6 to Croft Manor (1:04)
Lara Enters Prison (1:00)
Terry and Lara Driving (1:50)
Mah Jong (2:42)
Alternate Ending (3:21): A "protection" ending, shot at the studio's insistence.
Everyone else, including de Bont and Jolie, preferred the original ending, and they
eventually persuaded the studio that it was superior.
Featurettes (480i; 1.33:1): The titles are self-explanatory.
Vehicles and Weapons (4:32)
Visual Effects (11:29)
Gerard Butler Screen Test (480i; 2.35:1; 4:02): Terry Sheridan's first scene.
Korn, "Did My Time" (480i; 1.33:1; 4:04)
The Davey Brothers, "Heart Go Faster" (480i; 1.85:1; 3:37)
The Cradle of Life is harmless popcorn entertainment, but it's neither memorable nor remarkable
and, for my money, it falls short of the first film. Ironically, the second film has received a
superior treatment on Blu-ray, but it's only a matter of time before the first film is remastered. In
the meantime, for fans of the franchise, the Blu-ray of Cradle of Life is a creditable presentation
and is recommended on that basis. Those new to Jolie's Lara Croft films should rent.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life: Other Editions
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As part of its 2012 distribution deal with Paramount, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment is bringing Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life to Blu-ray. Based on the hit videogame series, director Jan de Bont's 2003 sequel to the 2001 feature film adaptation arrives ...
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