(Warning: Spoilers ahead!)
And once again we have another Chinese tomb raider movie, in full Indiana Jones mode, with a decidedly science fictional edge to it – which, yes, is much like last year’s Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe and the highly successful Mojin.
As I noted in my review of that film, our neat categories of SF and fantasy do not always apply so neatly outside of Western filmmaking. However, from what I have read recently this may have more to do with the anti-supernatural bias of the Chinese government. While they have released a few pure fantasy films these have all been set against the background of the mythical past – and several more-or-less fantasy films set in the modern world have tried very hard to hide their supernatural nakedness in metaphysical fig leaves. Consider, for example, how the supposed “alien” menace of Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe could just as easily be fantasy elves with little or no visual changes to the film.
Here, we have a family of tomb robbers who set out to explore the lost tomb of the mysterious Snake Empress, a powerful sorceress who supposedly knew the secret of eternal life.
However, as they penetrate deeper into a tomb which must be at least the size of Manhattan, it becomes more and more mechanical, with endless shots of turning gears and working parts. Admittedly, the sequences with evil puppets and revolving soldier statues are merely more exaggerated versions of the mechanical traps we’ve seen in other horror or fantasy movies (although I’ll concede, one of the cooler takes on them that I’ve seen in a long while), but when they finally reach the heart of the complex, any notion of primitive traps has long been left behind in favor of something that falls somewhere between 1930s Art Deco expressionism a’ la Metropolis and an ancient Assyrian temple. There are machines everywhere, glass tubes full of warriors who are being turned into plant people to make them immortal, a huge “aerial” reminiscent of ancient monuments, surrounded by electrical discharges, and huge, geared towers, endlessly spinning above the heart of the complex. We’re even told that the source of the Empress’ apparently supernatural force field is somehow electromagnetic – which they eventually shut down by crippling the big machine.
So is she a magical sorceress, who simply uses big, complex machines and natural forces to help with her magic – or a masterful engineer and genetic researcher who was centuries ahead of her time (and perhaps ours)?
It’s also interesting to note that the sinister Hendrix, a Nazi-like businessman who has sent another team of tomb raiders in search of the Empress’ secrets, has a secret lair worthy of a Bond villain, and an array of interesting toys many of which border on SF. The mapping drones are particularly interesting, even if they were pretty much borrowed from Prometheus.
This is one of those films which starts as an amiable adventure film, very much in the vein of the Indiana Jones films (albeit with more high-flying Wu Xia martial arts), before switching gears about the time the hordes of flesh-eating bugs show up. It then becomes something wilder and far more exaggerated with a wonderful, CGI craziness about it all. It would be easy to snipe at this film, but the truth is that it is a lot of fun, particularly once it turns into non-stop absurd action at the end. The whole might not be as great as the sum of its parts, but, if you’re in the mood for something to accompany a big bowl of popcorn, it is as good or better than most of the mindless action films in the theaters.
It wouldn’t hurt, though, if you just ignore that confusing ending/framing story. I’m not sure whether the people who made this film have any idea what it all means, either.
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