Home > Reviews > TOMB RAIDER – Tom Holkenborg

TOMB RAIDER – Tom Holkenborg

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Back in the 1990s, someone had an idea to make a film based on a popular video game, and it was quickly seen as a fertile new ground from which to draw cinematic inspiration. Unfortunately, the first few films – 1993’s Super Mario Bros., 1994’s Street Fighter, 1995’s Mortal Kombat – were all significantly awful, meaning that it was not until 2001’s Tomb Raider that a video game movie saw any real traction, either with critics or at the box office. The original film starred Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, the eponymous globe-trotting adventurer searching for artifacts and hidden treasure among the ancient ruins of the world. Now, 17 years later, Lara Croft has been rebooted, and this new film stars Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, the eponymous globe-trotting adventurer searching for… well, you get the idea. The film is directed by Norwegian Roar Uthaug, co-stars Walton Goggins and Dominic West, and has done some brisk business, achieving the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any major video game adaptation movie to date, and taking in well over $100 million on its opening weekend.

The music for the original Tomb Raider had a checkered history. As I wrote in my review of it back in the day, the first name attached to the project was John Powell; then, game composer Nathan McCree was announced as being the film’s composer. To the utter dismay of score fans, it was then announced that dance DJ Norman Cook (aka Fat Boy Slim) would co-ordinate the soundtrack. Then, in an amazing about-face, Cook was bumped off and Michael Kamen came in. Sigh of relief. But then, with just weeks to go before the film’s high profile premiere, Kamen downed tools and bolted the project, leaving poor old Graeme Revell with less than 10 days to write and record a 50-minute score for a full orchestra augmented by electronics. Needless to say, the resulting score was serviceable at best, and did not rate highly with critics at the time. The composer for the reboot is Dutch musician Tom Holkenborg (although for some reason he’s using his Junkie XL moniker for this project) and, unlike his predecessors, his assignment was smooth sailing – he was the only composer considered for the job, and he had a generous schedule in which to craft the film’s musical identity. This is why it pains me to say that Revell’s last-minute seat-of-his-pants salvage job shows considerably more style, thoughtfulness, creativity, and musicianship than Holkenborg’s efforts here.

At this point, I feel like I’m simply going to have to accept that virtually nothing Tom Holkenborg writes is ever going to appeal to my musical sensibility. He showed the briefest glimmers of something in Black Mass back in 2015, and wrote some interesting and beefy material for The Dark Tower last year, after he finally discovered the existence of his brass section. Unfortunately, these are the only two scores of his I can really claim to ‘like’ in any capacity: everything else he has written is either a) slow, droning string figures for serious films (Brimstone etc.), or b) relentless, massively overpowering action music that is over-reliant on synth loops and ear-splitting percussion (Mad Max etc.) He doesn’t seem to have much range beyond these two composing styles, applying either one or the other to every assignment he receives. Tomb Raider, as one can imagine, is solidly part of Option B.

I’m trying to imagine what director Uthaug’s instructions to Holkenborg might have been. “Don’t write any themes, Tom. I don’t want any melodic content whatsoever, nothing memorable, nothing which makes your music identifiable as being specific to this project. In fact, don’t even bother writing anything specifically tailored to a particular scene – just keep it general, generic, mainly rhythm and volume, so I can just track it in wherever I feel like it.” I then imagine him coming back a few days later and saying “You know, Tom, I like what I’m hearing, but you could go louder. Way louder, in fact, especially on the synth parts. But those rhythms… I think some of them are too complicated. There’s too much going on. Tone them down a bit. Simplify. We don’t want anything too interesting to distract people from what they are seeing on-screen. Just use basic pulses – thump thump thump – so that people can feel the energy, you know? And, actually, there’s something else. I know we hired an orchestra full of London’s most prestigious musicians but the whole thing just feels too… orchestra-y. You get what I’m saying? Make it sound like these world-class live musicians are actually samples. That’s what I’m looking for.”

The bottom line is that, for the vast majority of its running time, this is desperately dispiriting stuff. There’s a bit of piano noodling here and there, a few basic string chord progressions, and he’s remembered from his time on The Dark Tower that there’s this thing called a brass section, but once you get past the opening cue “Return to Croft Manor,” where these orchestral textures are most prominent, the whole thing quickly devolves into a series of brutal, apparently endless percussive action music cues.

What’s most frustrating about the score is how un-ambitious it is. There is so much scope for genuinely great music here. A film doesn’t have to be Citizen Kane for it to be musically inspiring – in fact, many composers up their game on films they know aren’t very good because they think they can save it by writing an outstanding score. The frenetic action, the exotic locales, the over-inflated sense of drama, the cliffhangers – all these things have the potential to make composers really challenge themselves, but for some reason Holkenborg’s music never rises beyond the absolute basics. Worst of all, some of the actual execution of the music seems sloppy; considering the amount of experience he has as an arranger of electronic music, and considering how frequently he has worked with some of the world’s best professional drummers, some of the percussion patterns and loops are shockingly bad, rendered with an apparent total lack of a recognizable rhythmic core. The side-steps into pseudo-dubstep in cues like “The Bag” and “Figure in the Night” might have sounded groundbreaking in 2006, but we’ve moved on since then.

The large scale action sequences – “The Devil’s Sea,” the 13-minute “Let Yamatai Have Her,” “What Lies Underneath Yamatai,” – are extremely loud and fast-paced and feature the entire orchestra, a mass of drums, and a huge bank of electronic sound effects, but they have no focus. Everything seems to be happening at random, jumping around from one thing to the next, as if Holkenborg thinks that simply using all the resources available to him is an adequate replacement for using them intelligently and with dramatic purpose. The moments where the strings perform major key crescendos, in cues like “Seeking Endurance,” “Path of Paternal Secrets,” towards the end of “Figure in the Night,” in “Never Give Up,” and in “There’s No Time,” allow a couple of moments of appealing tonality but, again, the actual musical content of these moments is simplistic in the extreme.

Occasionally, flashes of something interesting do appear, and in those moments you hear the tiniest glimpses of what sort of music Holkenborg might be able to produce in other circumstances. One or two cues feature an interesting yowling vocal texture that creates an exotic atmosphere, while later the vocal ideas in “What Lies Underneath Yamatai” become creepily ghostly. A couple of other cues briefly allow the brass section to develop a brooding 2-note motif which, given the right conditions, could have been developed into a recurring heroic theme for Lara. There’s also a string ostinato half way through “Figure in the Night” which is energetic and noticeable.

The one bright spot in the entire album might actually be the penultimate cue, “Becoming the Tomb Raider,” which tries its darnedest to emulate one of those magnificent 1990s Hans Zimmer power anthems, with a mass of flashy string runs and blaring horns. It’s almost endearing in a way, because at times it actually sounds like it could be a Youtube composer’s faltering attempts at recapturing the Zimmer zeitgeist of scores like Black Rain or Backdraft or The Peacemaker, but who isn’t able to do it because he doesn’t have Zimmer’s compositional skill or his uncanny knack for memorable melodies. But then you realize that it wasn’t written by an enthusiastic amateur, and instead was actually written for a $90 million studio blockbuster action movie by Tom Holkenborg, who has all the software and equipment money can buy and access to some of the finest musicians in the world, and now you’re all depressed again.

Needless to say, I’m really clutching at straws here. I want to find at least something positive to say, if for no other reason than to convince myself that the producers and directors and studio executives who continually hire Holkenborg for these enormously high profile projects instead of, oh, the 50 or so other composers who never get a sniff of something like this but could write Holkenborg out of the water, actually know what they are doing. Honestly, though, anyone wanting to experience some interesting musical ideas associated with the Tomb Raider project should seek out either Revell’s score for the 2001 original (which now seems like Mozart by comparison), or Alan Silvestri’s score for the 2003 sequel Cradle of Life – especially that score’s final cue, “Pandora’s Box,” which is genuinely stunning. In fact, were I feeling especially churlish, I might even recommend composer/director Randolph Scott’s score for his 2003 Lara Croft porno parody Womb Raider, which probably has more musical depth than Holkenborg’s efforts here. Not that I’d know anything about that, of course, because I absolutely haven’t seen it. OK, you can all go now.

Buy the Tomb Raider soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Return to Croft Manor (8:13)
  • Seeking Endurance (1:09)
  • The Bag (1:49)
  • Path of Paternal Secrets (3:39)
  • The Devil’s Sea (4:11)
  • Let Yamatai Have Her (13:23)
  • Figure in the Night (4:15)
  • Remember This (3:26)
  • Never Give Up (5:36)
  • Karakuri Wall (4:38)
  • What Lies Underneath Yamatai (8:35)
  • There’s No Time (4:01)
  • Becoming the Tomb Raider (7:15)
  • The Croft Legacy (2:00)

Running Time: 72 minutes 16 seconds

Sony Masterworks (2018)

Music composed by Tom Holkenborg. Orchestrations by Edward Trynek, Henri Wilkinson and Jonathan Beard. Additional music by Aljoscha Christenhuss and Antonio di Iorio. Recorded and mixed by Tom Holkenborg. Edited by Simon Changer. Album produced by Tom Holkenborg.

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  1. John Williams
    March 21, 2018 at 11:41 pm

    The director (as many directors do these days) requested a lack of ‘theme’. Not to mention the fact that a ‘reasonable’ schedule for a film composer is still a very limited amount of time…I find it hard to take these film score reviews seriously, because so much of the outcome of a film score has very little to do with the composer, and more to do with a temp track, or a director, or a producer.

    But even with all that, it’s clear that too many people wish we just went back to cheesy, done to death JW style scores. I think setting those types of score as the gold standard these days is a very silly thing to do.

  2. M
    March 22, 2018 at 2:02 am

    His work on “Fury Road” was very good in my opinion.

  3. Michael
    March 22, 2018 at 5:35 am

    Magnus Beite should have scored the film. His work on Roar Uthaug’s The Wave had everything this score didn’t. Action, emotion, and themes. Same with his other scores.

    At this point, Holkenberg either he doesn’t want to leave his comfort zone, or he just does what directors and Warner want from him.

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