'Tomb Raider' Movie Review: New Lara Croft, Same Disappointment
The story of Tomb Raider is a long one, fraught with all manner of pitfalls. What started out as a revolutionary video game in 1996 about a buxom, gun-toting adventurer has gone on to become a full-blown media franchise, including a staggering nineteen games, three films, and any number of comic books and novels. Lara Croft became a household name, perceived as an oversexed female Indiana Jones, mainly due to her adventures in exploring mythological places and publisher Square Eni’s continued portrayal of her as a wasp-waisted, top-heavy heroine. Her portrayal was, to say the least, problematic. The films prior to this one starred Angelina Jolie, and they slyly leaned into that depiction. They were not good films, though many perceive them as fun, and I’m not here to argue that.
But in 2013, Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix rebooted the franchise and created a whole new game with a whole new look. It was, to say the least, a remarkable transformation, both in appearance and in the overall gameplay. This new Tomb Raider was a well-crafted story of pure adventure coupled with brutal combat and gone was the chesty sexpot armed with myriad firearms and gadgetry, replaced by a younger, more realistic depiction who relied less on guns and tech and more on guile and grit. It was a fantastic game, and it’s that game that writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons chose to base their newest film on, effectively rebooting the film franchise as well.
Directed by Roar Uthaug (The Wave), this year’s iteration of Lara Croft hews closely to the 2013 game. Lara lives on her own, separated from her family’s wealth to promote her own independence as well as deny the possibility that her father, who disappeared years ago, is dead. Inevitably, family ties drag her back to face her old life, and she discovers that her father was far more than a simple billionaire. Armed with a map and clues to her father’s last known whereabouts, as well as cryptic information about an ancient Japanese queen, she teams up with a boat captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and sets off for a deadly, uncharted island in the middle of the Devil’s Sea.
What follows is a thoroughly mixed bag, which is a bit of a disappointment given the actors assembled. Alicia Vikander has made a career of turning in award-nominated, outstanding work and she does a solid job here as Lara Croft, handling the physicality of the role with remarkable skill as well as giving the character a sense of seriousness, while also maintaining a decent sense of humor. Wu is good, if underutilized, which is a sentence that I feel could apply to his entire career. Walton Goggins turns in a terrific, surprisingly nuanced performance as Mathias Vogel, the agent of a shadowy organization seeking the Queen’s tomb for their own nefarious purposes. It’s an intense, humorless, but well-portrayed performance that manages to give a sense of the sinister to all his scenes, yet it’s also not an unsympathetic bit of work. It’s classic Goggins in that it’s terrific, and never going to get the recognition he deserves.
The film itself is relatively paint-by-numbers, although it’s hard to tell if that’s because I’ve played the game that it’s based on. It covers many of the same scenes and emotional beats of the game, to the extent that sometimes I felt like I was simply watching the game’s cutscenes acted out with live actors. I can’t be sure that someone unfamiliar with the game might find it more affecting, but often it just never seemed to have the dramatic or kinetic impact on me that the film seemed to be aiming for. The action scenes are well-choreographed, and Vikander is more than up to what looks like a grueling task of constantly slamming her body into the ground, into trees, into water, and into people as she fights, shoots, and stabs her way through her mission. To the film’s credit, her first kill is a brutal, difficult watch — it’s not something that comes to her easily, which gives the character more dramatic weight — though much like the game, she seems to get used to it rather easily. Then again, the stakes are high, so perhaps that quick proficiency at murder is understandable.
Unfortunately, once you remove the action, you’re left with a rather pedestrian adventure tale. Tomb Raider lacks the emotional punch of its source material, and aside from Goggins, it never really gives its characters enough to do. Simply put, it’s not a particularly unique or even interesting film. Its few twists are easily telegraphed, and its dialogue is often rote and, in some instances, downright awful. Giving great actors bad lines doesn’t fix things, and while they gamely work their way through the film, the script’s limitations take their toll. It feels like an excellent cast was assembled to make a movie that you’re someday going to see on an endless loop on a Turner network. It’s an entertaining enough diversion, I suppose (though at two hours it’s far longer than necessary), but far from ground-breaking. I suppose I could comfortably say it’s one of the best video game adaptations ever, but if we’re being honest? That’s damn faint praise.