TOMB RAIDER

TOMB RAIDER is one of those video games that has entered the larger pop culture consciousness. Gamers might know, say, THE LAST OF US characters, but recognition of them drops to nil outside that community. Even games that have jumped to movies—ASSASSIN’S CREED for instance—have not really dug in. TOMB RAIDER, however, and specifically Lara Croft, occupy space next to the likes of the Mario Brothers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Link—even if he is often called Zelda.

Unfortunately, that name recognition has not yet translated into film. 2001’s LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER and the colon heavy 2003 LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER: CRADLE OF LIFE failed to connect. Even with Angelina Jolie at the height of her star power, viewers and critics just weren’t buying in.

The question for this reboot, then, is can it overcome past disappointments and live up to Croft’s outsized pop culture presence?

TOMB RAIDER - Being Lara Croft is dusty work
Alicia Vikander takes a breather in TOMB RAIDER. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers and MGM)

The Idea Behind TOMB RAIDER

TOMB RAIDER seeks to be a sort of BATMAN BEGINS for Lara Croft — while not coming close to the quality of the latter film, not to show my hand too soon. Croft (Alicia Vikander) is scraping by as a bike courier and hustler. She has a massive inheritance of property, corporations, and cash that she refuses to tap. While her life would be easier if she would tap into it, doing so also would require she admit her dad is dead. Her dad, Sir Richard Croft (Dominic West), disappeared seven years earlier, but no body has been found. Therefore, she’d rather cling to the idea that he still breathes than live easy.

An opportunity to retrace his last journey presents itself just when she finally seems to be resigned to his death. Without hesitation, Croft runs off to Hong Kong to meet up with the Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). Ren lost his father in the same trip to an unpopulated Japanese island that apparently houses a mythic goddess of death. After some brief verbal sparring, the two retrace their fathers’ voyage and end up face to face with Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel apparently murdered both Lord Richard and Lu Senior in his own search for Himiko, the aforementioned goddess.

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The Writing

TOMB RAIDER’s script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons boasts an overabundance of plot and a deficiency of character development. This is a problem when the goal is to move Lara from girl in mourning to badass woman in full.

The script also does little to create a supporting cast around her. It is telling that, in a few minutes of screentime, Nick Frost makes infinitely more of an impression than anyone not mentioned in the section above. A group of kidnapped sailors seeks to evoke sympathy. However, with nearly no lines and literally no personalities, they fail. Vogel’s goons should be scary but, again, their no personalities makes them more or less interchangeable.

Of course, this does not have to be a fatal problem. Plenty of scripts run heavy on plot, thin on character. But alas, the plot of TOMB RAIDER is lumpy. It often feels like lots of movement conveying nothing. Some things go on too long—the Lara in hard luck prelude, for example. Other segments seem rushed— for instance, the journey to the island.

Sometimes the plot seems to act in a way that directly contradicts what it is trying to tell us. During the aforementioned prelude, we see Croft sparring to demonstrate both her prowess and her refusal to quit. However, she gets “whupped,” as one character puts it, and losing via tap out. So she is an ok fighter who does quit, I guess?

TOMB RAIDER - Vikander isn't the only one with great arms
In this scene from TOMB RAIDER, Daniel Wu doesn’t like what he hears. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers and MGM)

Casting The Leads

If you can forgive an inexact comparison, Alicia Vikander is the Daniel Craig of the TOMB RAIDER franchise. Both were dinged early on for not looking the part—Craig for his blonde hair, Vikander for her breast size. (Oh how I wish I was kidding). They both followed actors who looked like the platonic ideal of the character. Pierce Brosnan seemed like James Bond incarnate. Angelina Jolie was essentially Lara Croft’s flesh-and-blood analogue. In other words, Jolie and Brosnan played their parts well but the movies largely failed to meet them. Meanwhile, both Craig and Vikander crafted more brutal, less polished interpretations of the characters.

Unfortunately, RAIDER is not Vikander’s CASINO ROYALE. Still, she is quite good. Her charisma is undeniable and her physicality well sells what she is asked to do. You will have no problem believing she can fight, run, and jump at near super-human levels. The script does not provide her with much meat, but she sells it all.

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Casting the Rest of the Call Sheet

Wu has great chemistry with Vikander and the movie wisely makes them friends and allies without forcing a romance. Unfortunately, the moment the story arrives at the island, he is sidelined for the rest of the movie.

West’s Lord Richard does fine, largely. Nonetheless, most of what I remember for is him acting as though he believes he is seeing a hallucination. As he muttered, “It’s not real,” the audience laughed not once but twice. There is no way the scene was meant as comedy. However, I am having a hard time deciding if it was a performance, script, or shot choice issue.

The biggest disappointment is the nearly always-reliable Walton Goggins. His villain has hints of menace or madness around the corners but never really unleashes either. He tells us over and over that the seven years he has spent on the island have hurt him. However, he only tells us that. Nothing about his performance conveys a sense of a man twisted by his time in the wilderness.

As noted above, the remainder of the cast is either barely on-screen or given less than nothing to do.

TOMB RAIDER - Daddy was a rolling stone
Dominic West and Maisy De Freitas do some father-daughter bonding in TOMB RAIDER. (Courtesy of Warner Brothers and MGM)

Filming

Roar Uthaug is helming his first American movie here but he has a fair to middling reputation back in his native Norway. Reviews indicate critics tend to regard him as delivering generic but watchable action and horror fare.

That description feels accurate here as well. Pacing, as I have already flogged to death above, is a problem. He cheats to mask his CGI at times by draping his shots in inky darkness. His sense of geography, especially on the island, feels like an afterthought and the action can feel confusing or empty as a result.

On the other hand, he is capable of putting together a strong action scene. While Croft is still a courier, he films a scene of her trying to evade her fellow bicyclists for a cash prize. The action crisscrosses the city and Uthaug lets it unfold via shots that sell the drama and Vikander’s physical abilities. The movie feels alive in this scene in a way it too rarely does otherwise.

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Striking the Set

TOMB RAIDER is, essentially, a one-woman film. Alicia Vikander is certainly capable of carrying a movie and, as a result, RAIDER often feels a fair bit better than it actually is. Calling it better than the Jolie films is both accurate and a bit of a backhanded compliment.

To make matters worse, the film adds a coda that makes it clear Croft has become the “Tomb Raider.” Again, it is an example of the film telling not showing, and it leaves a bad taste in your mouth as the lights come up.

Overall, TOMB RAIDER is mediocre effort, but it does show that Vikander can deliver the goods if the direction and script can give her enough support.

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