Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristen Scott Thomas
Director: Roar Uthaug
Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons
In the two and a half decades that Hollywood has been attempting to adapt video games into movies, the results have been mixed to say the least, ranging from weak to underwhelming to awful to batshit insane. There are a few in there that are pretty fun to watch despite (or maybe because) of how flawed they are (I would cite Angelina Jolie’s Lara Croft as one example of this), but so far there still hasn’t been an all out success. However, I think that Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has brought us one step closer to realising that dream. It has its flaws, but for me this movie felt life the most competently made, narratively engaging, emotionally affective adaptation so far. The bar is admittedly very low, but I walked from Tomb Raider feeling like I had watched a good, exciting movie that had more thought and creativity put into it than anyone could have expected. It’s not Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it’s a baby step in the right direction.
Based in part on the 2013 game that rebooted the franchise, the movie follows Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) a young Englishwoman with a privileged upbringing who stands to inherit her father Lord Richard Croft’s (Dominic West) business, wealth and estate following his disappearance. Believing her father to still be alive, Lara refuses and makes a living on her own as a bike courier. In the film’s first action scene we see Lara racing on her bicycle through the streets of London in a ‘fox hunt’. As she navigates the winding streets and dodges all the cars and lorries in her way, her stamina, quick-wittedness, and endurance are put on full display, as is her reckless nature. This incident gets her into trouble and she is bailed out by her father’s business partner Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas), who reasons that the time has come to let her father go.
Upon gaining access to a puzzle box left by her father however, Lara is led by a breadcrumb trail of clues to a secret chamber in the family tomb. There she finds a message from Richard detailing his research into Himiko, a mythical queen who was said to possess extraordinary powers over life and death. Richard, anticipating that this expedition may get him killed, warns Lara to destroy his findings and not to come searching for him. There are no prizes for guessing what Lara does next. She sets out for Hong Kong in search of her father and hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), captain of the Endurance, to escort her across the Devil’s Sea to the island of Yamatai. On the way there, the ship gets caught in a violent storm and Lara is swept away and washed ashore. There she is found by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the leader of the expedition to locate Himito’s tomb and the man responsible for her father’s disappearance. Lara escapes and, lost and alone on the forbidding island, she must survive the perils of the jungle and learn the truth of what lies within Himito’s tomb.
In the game that provided the basis for this film, a greater emphasis was placed on Lara Croft’s character than in previous games and Vikander does a wonderful job of bringing her to life. This Lara is a more emotional person than action heroes are usually allowed to be. The affection she feels for her father is strongly evident, as is the pain she feels in his absence. She is both intelligent and sensitive and those are both sides of her character that the film is as keen to explore as it is her strength. The first time we ever see her kill a man, it is a moment that upsets her on a deep, personal level and she isn’t able to shrug the deed off the way that a more standard, one-dimensional action lead would be able to. It’s fairly typical of action films with female leads to try and make their protagonists stronger and tougher (i.e. more masculine) by giving them the clichéd personality traits we’d expect from a strong and silent killing machine like those Schwarzenegger and Stallone used to play. This movie however puts more thought into its main character’s emotional experience and presents the act of killing as an event that actually matters to someone who feels empathy.
Vikander also delivers an intense and committed performance, making you feel the physicality of every blow she’s dealt and every muscle she strains. What sets Lara Croft apart from, say, Wonder Woman is that she doesn’t have the strength or the constitution to overpower her opponents with ease. The movie thus has to devote much deliberation into figuring out how a woman can plausibly win the upper hand against foes who are physically bigger and stronger than she is and finds the answer in her speed, tactical thinking, endurance, and grit. This is indicative of the level of thought and the attention to detail that the previous Tomb Raider movies lacked and makes for a more compelling film where the physical and emotional experience of its main character is more visceral and more deeply felt. There are a ton of great action scenes that follow, the best of which for me was when Lara gets swept away in a river and narrowly avoids going over a waterfall by clinging herself to a rusted Second World War fighter jet hanging precariously over the edge. Her delivery of “Really?” as she sees the plane start to fall apart is worthy of Indiana Jones.
The movie does have its shortcomings here and there. There are a number of supporting characters who show promise in their first scenes but who never really get the chance to shine. Goggins, who is usually irresistibly enjoyable and wildly charismatic when he plays villains, is pretty forgettable as Vogel. A man who has spent years away from his family in search of Himito’s tomb and has lost his humanity somewhere along the way, there is a tragedy to the character that the movie never finds the time to explore. Another is Lu, a character who suffers from the same abandonment issues as Lara (having lost his own father in that same expedition) and who forms a non-romantic relationship with her built on shared experiences and mutual respect. He is pretty much sidelined in the film’s third act. There are also issues with plotting as the film takes a while to get going and is wont to drag when there isn’t some action taking place.
Still, even putting aside the standard set by video game movies, Tomb Raider is an overall well-made and often thrilling film. It has an emotional core in Lara’s journey as a character and her relationship with her father, and that gives the movie a point of focus that is so often lacking in these adaptations. The absentee father is no stranger to films of this type (even Indiana Jones tackles this theme), but it feels fresher here for having a daughter as the protagonist rather than a son. The efforts of Vikander and West also play no small part in making the story feel that little bit more affective. There is more effort at work in this film than was needed and it pays off not only in Lara’s character and story but in the action scenes as well. While there is still a ways to go before video game movies cease to be a cinematic punch line, Tomb Raider shows that the potential is definitely there. It is compelling, action-packed and surprisingly touching and it also brings to life one of pop culture’s most iconic and badass heroines.