In the United States, computer games currently make more money from gross domestic income than Hollywood. Nifty hand-held keypads have made playing more palatable and produced dynamic figures that operate fluidly in the game space. 3-D graphics and Dolby Digital surround sound make the gaming experience increasingly pleasurable, along with faster micro-processing and enhanced memory cards. The new consoles – the Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox and the Nintendo Gamecube are laying the foundations for the incorporation of artificial intelligence. Computer and video games are at the centre of a multi-million dollar industry and cultural phenomena that is pushing the boundaries of conventional popular media forms.
Lara Croft has become the industry’s quintessential postmodern pin-up girl. She is the "silicone chick" that has made Tomb Raider the biggest-selling game in the past five years grossing more than $1 billion in retail sales. She has become a public figure in demand. In 1997 she appeared on the cover of The Face magazine - the first time the magazine featured a virtual identity on its cover. This was followed on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Gucci paid her $30,000 to model virtual versions of real clothes and she toured with U2 on their interactive Popmart or Zoo TV tour. In 2001, the first Tomb Raider feature film was released starring Angelina Jolie as the ‘cyberbabe’. 2003 has seen the release of the second feature film, The Cradle of Life.
Lara Croft performs a yearning for the height of the British Empire when Englishness was revered rather than ridiculed – a time when the Empire was grandiose and gratuitous and no-one cringed at the audacity of it all. She is the ultimate coloniser. A funked-up feminine Indiana Jones, raiding foreign spaces with the jubilation embraced only by those with a criminal absence of consciousness.
What makes this pillage of the postcolonial valid is the dislocation of time and space embedded within the games, and now the films. Tomb Raider is a journey into the past. The deeper Lara ventures into the tomb, the further back in time she travels until she unearths the Lost City of Atlantis or a Tyrannosaurus Rex. The player is embedded in this time warp. The first feature film even has a clock that runs backwards as the central plot motif.
This positioning of the past within the present creates a disjointed dislocation from present-day consequences. It generates a blind-spot where for the sake of entertainment the concerns and consciousness of the dispossessed can be ignored for good gaming. In the second film, The Cradle of Life, the perversions of colonisation are blatantly embraced in the most inelegant manner.
In a post/neo-colonial world, one expects the exploitation to be slightly veiled. The oppression of the underclass is usually ensnared in phrases like "I’m not racist but…" and the appropriation into fashion products of Maori tattoos and Indian religious symbols. It seems we have come to a point where we can now say what was once un-sayable. The subtleties of neo-colonialism are no longer needed in a culture where as Ghassan Hage argues “it is no longer up to the victims to decide if a person is racist.” Maybe this is a good thing. It is, as Hage affirms, “more ethical to be a racist and acknowledge it than to be one and deny it.” Nevertheless I was startled when in the middle of the opening sequence to Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, Lara – perched precariously on top of a magnificent monument in the Lost City of Ra – lit up an oxy-torch to dislodge the precious artefact. This jarring imagery crystallised the core themes of the Tomb Raider series of games and films. Yet there is something crude and callous about The Cradle of Life. Every colonial cliché is conjured.
The cradle of life is found – almost perversely predictably – in the deepest darkest corner of Africa. It is magical, powerful and of course, deadly. The filmmakers attempt to "modernise" Africans by placing Lara’s contact and friend in a jeep using a cell-phone is banal at best. While Africa is full of wise, primitive and primeval personalities, the East (China/Hong Kong) is full of suicidal terrorists. To cap off the colonial consciousness, the Scotsman from the Celtic fringe is the most treacherous of all – chasing the dollar over diligence and integrity. It seems capitalism can only be managed by those industrialists and old-moneyed monopolies that directly operate it. The authority of capital and the coloniser is re-established as Lara Croft plunders the knowledges, artefacts and lands of the fringes. She is the expert, the savior, and the protector who knows and understands the significance of what she has "discovered". Ancient artefacts cannot be trusted to the colonised as they do not have the knowledge of what it is "worth".
I was not expecting earth-shattering cinema. I went along to the screening of this film hoping to gain a good time and at best some enjoyment in the latest Tomb Raider installment. I was definitely not expecting the gratuitous groping at otherness presented on the screen. The scale of the problematic politics in this film makes me wonder where our social sensitivity is. I thought we had gotten over these binarised belongings. Yet, in the age of parochial border policing, it seems like the binaries are more valuable than ever.
The insecurity of our time is connected to our consciousness every night with the evening news and a fresh speech by George W. Bush and John Howard assuring us that the threats are everywhere. "It" can happen anywhere and to anyone. Be alert, but not alarmed. No wonder we are craving the crisp, clear divisions of ideology to make us feel more secure. These easy meanings make an incoherent world appear negotiable. We have forgotten our post-colonial need for flexibility and sensitivity. The tools of nuance and negotiation are oxidizing in the parochial consciousness. A film like Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life is part of the public and popular affirmation of cautious "common-sense".
There is no neo-colonial politics in Tomb Raider. There is nothing "new" or subtle about it. These are very old ideologies that are being crystallised in our contemporary consciousness. Most startlingly, it appears that these knowledges and practices are now entertaining. The appropriation and plunder of otherness is needed to shore-up the common sense of "the centre" undergoing its own crisis of confidence and afraid that the unruly regions are taking back what has been taken from them.
The Tomb Raider series is a colonialist genre. The Cradle of Life is the most perverse rendering of these politics in its canon. Its appearance in popular culture at the moment of greatest destabilisation, politically, economically and socially is an important signifier of public consciousness and character. It is a deeply troubling rendering of the reaffirmation of binary logic at a time when flexibility, fluidity and friendship is needed most.
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