• Ben Erickson

Tomb Raider



Tomb Raider is an action-adventure film based on the video game series of the same name, directed by Roar Uthaug and starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. The film is a reboot of the 2001 and 2003 films starring Angelina Jolie in the lead role, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life respectively, and the music is composed by Dutch artist Tom Holkenborg, former DJ and producer. Better known these days by his stage name Junkie XL, Holkenborg is yet another member of Remote Control Productions, recognized in Hollywood for his work on Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, the latter of which he co-composed with Hans Zimmer. The aforementioned turn of the millennium Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films were scored by Graeme Revell and Alan Silvestri. Revell, with only a 10 day allotment, wrote a very impressive score, incorporating piano, drums, electronic beats, exotic woodwinds, Tuvan overtone throat singing, and a melodramatic choir performing a fresh setting of the Dies irae. Silvestri brought back many of these elements for the sequel - to wit; throat singing, electronic mixing, a doomsday choir - and added a fair amount of thematic material, building on the musical blueprint of the first. It would be a stretch to call either of these previous scores refined, but by comparison Holkenborg's score for Tomb Raider exhibits nothing so distinct. The composer's approach to film music is much in keeping with his early work as a solo musician; emblazoned with electronic breakbeats and battering drums. He sits at his synthesizer keyboard and plunks out different drum patterns, layering on thick textures and taking advantage of strong, heavy timbres that fight one another to be the loudest. This percussively driven style can be really impactful. All one needs to do is listen to "Brothers in Arms" from Mad Max: Fury Road to hear how he induces his style with industrialized rock opera to create an ideal dystopian soundscape. It is equally impressive that he performs about half of what he comes up with, prerecording his cues before adding further orchestral instruments. However, something about the idea of a score being so heavily reduced to electronic components, and consequently impossible to perform in a live setting as it is all executed by one person, does not sit well with me. It undermines the collaborative process, and negates any possibility of experiencing the score in a raw and purely expressive context. Tomb Raider underlines a few problematic features of modern day scoring. Not that the score failed to perform up to today's standards. In fact the in-film experience creates a far more nuanced product than one would think to give the music credit for otherwise, but they curtailed theme and generally lazy writing still strikes a sour tone. Far from just a Holkenborg issue this approach is fast becoming a prevalent feature among even the most accomplished film composers. Fragmentary ideas are sketched out here and there to mark the appearance of a character or situation, sometimes with as few as three notes, giving us the impression of a larger composition that has been abbreviated, and the fragments are then given appellations as if their appearance marks an unprecedented achievement. Too often these melodies feel incomplete, or lack a defined tonal centre, saying nothing about the nature of their signifier. Granted, audiences watching a film do not care if the music makes structural sense, but they can still tell when something does not sound right. Complete ideas are valuable not only for their ability to express the complexities analogous to their signifier, but because they can be broken down into their essential parts, with each segment illustrating one aspect of the whole. Take Holkenborg's theme for Tomb Raider as an example (see music excerpt below). This leading five-note melody is the highest level of sophistication reached by the music, yet it hardly qualifies as a jingle much less a theme, and it is one of only two motivic devices in the score. Foremost, it does not have a defined tonal centre. A single sharp in the key would suggest either G-major or E-minor, and since the melody begins on G it would be logical to assume it is written in G-major, but then it descends to scale degree six and rises back to scale degree three, neither of which create a strong sense of tonality. If written for E-minor we begin on the third, descend to the tonic, and cadence on the fifth. This makes for a stronger argument, but still lacks sense in that the tonic is treated as a cursory tone instead of an arrival. It should be noted that neither of these options cadence on the tonic, offering no sense of resolution, and that the theme lacks any repetition of pitch, aggravating the lack of tonal stability. A last consideration would be B-minor, if for no other reason than the theme would resolve on the tonic, but as with the former options it demonstrates weak tonal design. Any key more intricate than this would only convolute the melody with accidentals, and so our options have run their course.


From a musical standpoint the only redeeming quality of the theme is that it shares intervallic structural features with one of the more sentimental melodies written by James Newton Howard for The Dark Knight trilogy. In a narrative sense the melody lacks definition as it attempts to act as an all-purpose theme, performed during action sequences and making generic appearances as a character leitmotiv or to display the mysterious nature of Yamatai. To that end we can insist that if a composer is going to write a single multi-functional theme for a film it had best be a good one. Audiences want their ears to be challenged by the graceful complexities of the music, and good characters deserve music that informs us about them beyond what the rest of the film is telling us. If Holkenborg had chosen to write a brave and adventurous theme for instance, or something embodying introspection that reads in to her intellect and embraces the qualities of the character it would have stood a much better chance of surviving in the viewer's memory. Villains are especially cheated in this respect, treated with threatening grumbles or descending lines that cheapen what could be a great antagonist. The second theme is an equally forgettable five-note reflection expressing the relationship between father and daughter. Looking at the remainder of the score, it is clear that Holkenborg's reliance on percussive electronic beats and ceaseless drumming patterns has developed an aggressive quality to his scoring that lacks rationale. Any time it sounds as if the music has found a jaunty groove and is about to take us somewhere new it returns to thunderous, barbaric commotion with hideous electronic elements thrown in, alongside what sounds like bewildering primate calls. Plainly there are other elements laced into the score, such as the genial piano keys, fat brass, and confused violins that constantly escalate with harsh, discordant glissandi whenever some perilous circumstance is overcome, so we can give Holkenborg the credit of paying attention to other members of the orchestra. This still does not change the fact that the music is in no way appealing, either as a narrative device or for its inherent artistic value. The orchestration is so dense that most of the time it is impossible to distinguish the vessel of expression within a given moment, and seldom does the score let down its pace, using an unabiding tempo to describe the urgency of the situation, as if we do not already know that Croft is in danger. My senses are constantly underwhelmed with this type of scoring for B movies; the type of scoring that never lets one breathe, where listening to it gives one no choice but to turn to better music and clean one's ears; scoring where I find myself tuning out my senses to enjoy what little else I can of the film. Contemporary film composers seem to submit themselves to this unspoken fabrication that the quality of the music cannot succeed the quality of the film, and it results in a truly frustrating product. The truth is that some of the best scores in cinematic history have come from B movies, and for the composers who prescribe to this notion of equivalent exchange I say this: do not tell us this is the best you can do. You are the professional. Expect more of yourself. Holkenborg inhibits himself from exploring the greater depth offered by larger ensembles. It could be he is somewhat intimidated by diving into the deep end of an orchestra, but based on what we know of his orchestrations we can tell he has some aptitude in this regard and more likely he is having difficulty reconciling his film scoring chops with his old moniker. What interests me is whether or not Holkenborg will let his characteristic style define the remainder of his film scoring career. In the case of Mad Max: Fury Road and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, arguments can be made to defend this type of scoring and how it supported those films, such as the fact that two heavy-weight champions, full of their own internal bombasticity, go head-to-head in the latter. Even in the case of Tomb Raider we can interpret the music as "jungle drums", expressing the dangerous nature of gorilla warfare. But how long will Holkenborg be given excuses to exercise his percussive inclination, and how far are critics willing to go to defend it? The further he travels outside his comfort zone the better the result, and allowing his scoring to metamorphize into a more inclusive approach is the key to his continued success. #TomHolkenborg


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