Three tries in and it still seems like a challenge to make a proper Tomb Raider movie. There’s been a lot of talk over the years about how films adapted from specific video games should have lucked into producing a really good one at this point. However, beyond some cult favorites (think Silent Hill) and moderate successes (the Resident Evil franchise), we’ve still yet to see one that’s been fully accepted as a genuinely good movie. Ideally, a new take on the adventure franchise featuring Lara Croft could have proven otherwise, given the current state of blockbuster cinema. Sadly, while not thoroughly terrible as other attempts, this Tomb Raider is serviceable at best and easily forgettable.
Following an opening prologue narrated by Dominic West to set up the daddy issues that will be one of the leading challenges for our heroine, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), the film really kicks off with all the familiar origin story material for any hero’s journey. Lara is tough and smart, but not quite the kick-ass tomb raider she will mature into by the end of the film. To accomplish this, Lara must learn about a family secret that takes her to Hong Kong, followed by a sea voyage to the island where her father disappeared.
I wonder what it takes to put together a film that has a lot of inspiration to work with. Beyond the 2013 video game reboot that Tomb Raider’s story and look is based on, plenty of adventure films must have paved the way for a variety of ideas filmmakers could work with. An explorer that goes on exotic adventures, facing off against enemies and booby traps, while in search of treasure, easily brings a certain fedora-wearing archeologist to mind and that’s one of the main things to study.
No, a Tomb Raider movie doesn’t need to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, but there is a way to take on the basics, which should mainly amount to finding a personality. In an age where every movie with even a decent budget can put together some cool action sequences (assuming they are cohesive and not horribly edited), the thing to make movies like this stand out are the quirky characters, weird asides, and human beats that provide a break in between theatrics. Tomb Raider has almost none of this. The opening half hour that I would otherwise cut out at least finds time to let the characters have fun, even if the film is going through the motions of a standard hero’s journey. The rest is mostly suspense-free adventuring.
Credit could go to Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) for taking the generic script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons and not making any egregious missteps. Tomb Raider at least gets to look like the game it is based on, as opposed to something as seemingly simple as Max Payne, where all the wrong decision were made. So sure, Tomb Raider is more along the lines of something like Warcraft, where the source material is respected to some degree. Still, the problem with both of these movies is how bland they are. Save for one major element, nothing is surprising or all that engaging about anything that takes place during Lara’s adventure.
The one element that works is Vikander. It’s not unexpected, as an Oscar-winning actress being given a franchise starter means putting in the effort and delivering on what everyone would assume. She’s capable here, even if the latter half of the film is more about a bunch of dudes having all the interesting stuff to do. The lack of objectification helps. It’s an adventure movie with more grit than charm.
There are even portions of the film where the film pauses to be pretty good. One of these scenes comes early on when Lara deals with a pawn shop dealer played by Nick Frost. Another occurs on the island when Lara is faced with killing someone for the first time. With scenes like this, Vikander can make the most with what’s required to sell her version of a character that’s been around for over 20 years.
Along with West as Mr. Croft, the supporting cast includes Daniel Wu (Into the Badlands) as Lara’s non-romantic partner, who captains the ship getting her to the island. More interesting is Walton Goggins as Mathias Vogel, the evil archaeologist. Goggins is a pro and likely did all kinds of prep that isn’t portrayed adequately on screen. That said, the one thing we do understand is that he only wants to find a particular tomb so he can get off the island and go back home. It feels like an unintentional meta reference to participating in a bland franchise film but the sweaty intensity that Goggins channels at least made me smile.
Keeping the action in mind, there’s only so much to appreciate. The two best action scenes may be the ones that don’t take place on the island. An early bike race and a foot chase along the Hong Kong harbor end up more exciting than a multi-level sequence involving a waterfall, a rusty plane, and a parachute. The lack of digital manipulation helps, but they are also action scenes rooted establishing the character. Later on, during an actual tomb raiding sequence, the film has some fun in the booby traps and puzzles it came up with, but it’s mainly about characters yelling at each other while hoping I’m distracted enough not to think of the similar sets I saw in Alien vs. Predator.
I wouldn’t ever want to defend the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films and I still won’t (well, the second entry is…fine). However, I will acknowledge that Jolie at least got to start out as the Lara Croft that goes on adventures, shoots guns, and exudes a level of confidence. Understandably, this Tomb Raider is based on a game that rebooted the character, so this Croft wouldn’t be entirely formed yet. However, the game was able to get the point rather quickly. While the trials of an origin story are familiar, if that’s the route to take, this film really could have benefited from getting to the island quicker and saving all the energy it had in its opening act for the actual Tomb Raider portion of the film. Instead, we get a film that has the budget to look good enough but still feel dull. It may not be game over for this franchise, but I would have hoped we didn’t need to wait until level two to get a possibly better take on this cinematic series.