Tomb Raider

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.

★★★★

Advertisements

Jason Bourne

Cast: Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Stiles, Riz Ahmed

Director: Paul Greengrass

Writers: Paul Greengrass, Christopher Rouse


There is hardly an action movie today that doesn’t owe some kind of debt to the Bourne trilogy. After the slick, stylised action of Cold War cinema, Bourne pioneered a brutally intense style befitting the post-9/11 age we live in. Through narrow framing, camera shakes and sporadic editing these three films developed a style of action that feels more energetic and severe than those before it. It is a style that has since been widely adopted, emulated, misused, parodied and developed throughout the last decade. With all the time that has gone by since the trilogy ended, Jason Bourne is faced with the task of recapturing that same feeling without simply feeling like yet another imitation, something that The Bourne Legacy was unable to do. Given how Matt Damon long proclaimed that he would not reprise Bourne unless Paul Greengrass was on board and the script felt right, there was reason to be optimistic about this possibility. Sadly, the movie did not live up to the promise.

A decade after recovering from his amnesia and exposing Operation Blackbriar, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) been living in exile. He is found in Greece by Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) who informs him of a discovery she’s made regarding Bourne’s recruitment into Blackbriar and how his father might have been involved. Her intrusion into the CIA’s mainframe was detected by the head of the cyber ops division Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and reported to the CIA’s Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones). To stop her, the CIA dispatches an operative known as the Asset (Vincent Cassel), who then proceeds to disrupt Nicky’s meeting with Bourne in Athens. From there Bourne must go on the run once again, must learn the truth of a mystery from his past, and must discover whatever secret it is the CIA is trying to cover up.

Jason Bourne is essentially more of the same and that is both a strength and a weakness. The action is technically still phenomenal. The scene where the Asset chases Bourne and Nicky through the streets of Athens while a riot takes place is a stunning sequence. The fistfights are as intense and energetic as ever. The impact however is somewhat lulled due to the widespread adoption of the trilogy’s style. This type of action is no longer unique to Bourne, therefore it doesn’t really stand out amongst all the other action-thrillers being made today. A compelling story with interesting characters would have been extremely helpful in this regard, but Jason Bourne failed to deliver on that front. Whereas the government agents in the first three movies were intently focused on finding Bourne and stopping him from exposing Operations Treadstone and Blackbriar, the main antagonist of this movie concerns himself with a subplot that is wholly immaterial to Bourne’s story. This subplot, which deals with issues of privacy and surveillance, is the movie’s attempt to be socially relevant, but in execution it steals away from the central narrative and does not affect the plot in any meaningful way.

The disparity in story made it difficult to become engaged with the characters. Tommy Lee Jones dedicated so much of his screen-time to a story irrelevant to Bourne’s that the link between them was not nearly as strong as it was with Brian Cox, Joan Allen and David Strathairn. Some viewers might appreciate the movie’s attempt to tackle such a critical political and social issue, but for me the central conflict of Jason Bourne just wasn’t personal enough. Vikander, who is plays more of a role in the hunt for Bourne than Jones, does a little better here. Damon himself is sufficiently tough and intense and Bourne, who has never been a particularly complex or emotive character, but does feel a bit like he’s on autopilot at points. This wasn’t as glaring as it was with Stiles though who was practically asleep in all of her scenes. Cassel I think was the one performer who really came through as a highly trained assassin with a personal vendetta against Bourne.

Sadly Jason Bourne is fated to join the line of unnecessary and underwhelming sequels in great franchises that should have left well enough alone, along with The Godfather: Part III and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. While by no means bad, it wasn’t worth the wait and did not live up to the promise. After years of waiting for the right script to come along, I wonder what it was about this offering that convinced Damon and Greengrass that this movie just had to be made. Jason Bourne is a solid enough movie in its own right but under the shadow of its franchise it isn’t up to par. If all you want from a Bourne sequel is more of Matt Damon kicking ass and taking names, then this movie is just fine. If you want a movie that brings the Bourne franchise to new heights and inspires the same level of intrigue and captivation as the original Bourne movies, you will be sorely disappointed.

★★★

The Danish Girl

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander, Matthias Schoenaerts, Ben Whishaw, Sebastian Koch, Amber Heard

Director: Tom Hooper

Writer: Lucinda Coxon


In a year where transgender stories and themes were able to reach a wider mainstream audience on TV with such shows as Transparent, Sense8, Boy Meets Girl, and of course I am Cait, the transgender movement has never been more visible or widely supported. Therefore there was much expectation for The Danish Girl which many hoped would help take the cause even further. Although there is a progressive history of transgender cinema, (The Crying Game, Boys Don’t Cry and Transamerica to name a few) few of the filmmakers driving it have had the mainstream appeal of Tom Hooper, the Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech and Les Misérables. Given the significant rise in prominence the subject matter has made in recent years I was curious to see whether The Danish Girl would be the film that everybody wants it to be.

The film tells the real life story of Lili Elbe, one of the first known people to receive sex reassignment surgery. Before Lili there was Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), a successful landscape artist living in 1920s Copenhagen. When his wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), herself an aspiring artist, asks him to stand in for a female model Einar undergoes an awakening. As he finds himself entranced in his role as a woman, he discovers another side of himself whom he christens Lili. Over time Einar grows to understand that Lili has always been there deep within his sub-conscious and realises that she represents the core of who he truly is. This sets off a progression as Lili tries to leave her former identity behind so that she might live her life free from constraint and repression. When she discovers Dr Kurt Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), whose work concerns the practice of gender reassignment, Lili sees it as her chance for salvation.

The main problem with this film is that it is too safe. I believe the film was well-intentioned and wanted to pay all due respect to this woman’s story but it doesn’t take it far enough. Vital themes are underexplored; the focal characters are underwritten; and important questions are left unasked. The central conflict of this film is that between Lili and Einar where she must confront the reality that she is a woman trapped in a man’s body. The film however never goes deep enough to really explore the suffocation and confinement she must feel nor does it ever get to the heart of who Lili actually is. The focus of this film is placed on Lili’s situation rather than on Lili herself, resulting in a story without a character. The film also tries to incorporate Gerda’s struggle into the story as she confronts the prospect of losing her husband in order to help Lili. Her story is handled better than Lili’s is as the film showcases how this situation is just as difficult for her. The story is not handled badly nor would I call this film dull, it just seems airless to me. The film knows what it wants to say but it isn’t brave or daring enough to say it.

The actors for the most part do well with what they are given. I understand that the decision to cast the cisgender Eddie Redmayne as Lili got a lot of controversy but I thought he did very well considering. His performance is understated and vulnerable and he does a good job of conveying the anguish of a person torn between two identities. Alicia Vikander has gone from strength to strength this year and gives what is easily the film’s best performance. Her character’s struggle to help the person she loves become who she needs to be even though it means erasing the life that they have together is portrayed with such heart and sensitivity. Hooper for his part gives the film a very refined and elegant look much like a painting. As a director he has often favoured extreme close-ups of his characters and employs it to effective use with his intimate shots of Einar as he discovers and explores his feminine side.

The film’s refined and elegant tone however is also its let-down. The film tries so hard to tell this story in a tasteful and sensitive way that it ends up whitewashing the elements that really matter. The focus is placed on the conceptual element of the story rather than on the human element which means that the character at the centre of it all gets downplayed. There are occasional glimpses of the film that could’ve been (I remember one particularly moving scene taking place at a peep-show) but for the most part The Danish Girl plays it safe with its subject matter. I was hoping that this film would help introduce transgender themes to a wider mainstream audience but the problem is that the film itself is too mainstream. It is a noble, well-meaning effort but a reserved one nevertheless.

★★★

Ex Machina

Cast: Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac

Director: Alex Garland

Writer: Alex Garland


The theory of Artificial Intelligence has always been a fascinating one. Is it possible for a machine to possess a human consciousness? What does it mean to be human and what does it mean to be a machine? Can thoughts and emotions be programmed? How does someone tell if a machine’s thoughts and feelings are real or artificial? This subject, which has been explored in a wide range of films from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Her, is tackled by Alex Garland in his directorial debut Ex Machina. He addresses all of these questions and more as he sets out to understand the nature of Artificial Intelligence and the potential implications and ramifications it holds for mankind.

We are introduced to Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) who wins a competition and is selected to participate in an exclusive project for the company he works for. He is an introverted young man with no social life to speak of and who had never expected to ever be presented with this kind of opportunity. Without knowing where he is going or whom he is going to meet, Caleb is taken by helicopter to an isolated location deep in the woodlands where he is left alone to find the base of this secretive project. The woodlands provide a beautiful yet strangely ominous setting. There is something not quite right about this place; it seems almost too perfect. The unsettling tone and atmosphere that this place creates reverberates throughout the film.

Caleb eventually finds the base and meets Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the owner of the company. Nathan is a young, multi-millionaire genius who has brought Caleb on board to participate in the greatest scientific breakthrough in the history of mankind. Nathan reveals that he has built the world’s first Artificial Intelligence and that he wants Caleb to give it the Turing Test, the test that assesses a computer’s ability to exhibit the behaviour of a human being. It is Caleb’s task to determine whether Nathan has created a being capable of conscious thought and genuine emotion by interacting with it and forming a social bond with it. Like the woodlands they inhabit there is something menacing about Nathan’s character. He displays the behaviourisms of a man with something to hide and the way he candidly talks to Caleb combined with his incessant drinking all hint towards something disturbing.

Before long the test begins and Caleb is taken to the room where he will meet the subject. He is surrounded by a glass wall that will separate him from the AI where he notices a small crack, again hinting towards something sinister beneath this whole endeavour. We are then finally introduced to Ava (Alicia Vikander), a robot with the face and figure of a beautiful woman. The two are instantly fascinated with each other as Ava shows herself to possess very human traits. She engages Caleb in intelligent conversation, she makes jokes, and she draws pictures which reflect her creativity. She also has a keen curiosity about Caleb, about humans, and about the outside world and shares with him her desire to one day see a busy road in the middle of a city where she can watch and observe all the people going about their varying activities. However when a power outage renders the cameras recording their conversations inactive, Ava delivers a warning to Caleb. She warns him that Nathan is a liar and that he must not trust him or anything he says. As soon as the power is restored Ava returns to normal and carries on talking as if nothing had happened.

As Caleb ventures deeper into this project his mind becomes more uncertain and his situation more hazardous. He does not know who he can trust or whether he can even trust himself. He starts to doubt his own judgement as he steadily becomes infatuated with Ava, who in turn reciprocates his affections. He starts to question whether there is more to this test than he was told. He wonders what exactly it is that Nathan is hiding from him. He contemplates whether Ava is trying to deceive him or if she’s even capable of deception. The relationship between him and Ava grows more intriguing and complex as he starts developing strong feelings for her and is overcome by a desire to help her.

The mystery surrounding Ex Machina is endlessly fascinating and stimulating. As soon as you start to think that you’ve figured it out, something new is revealed that changes your perception. It is a film that keeps you guessing up to the very end. The discussion surrounding the theme of Artificial Intelligence is also captivating as the nature of the human mind and what it means for a computer to display that nature are considered in an intelligent and interesting way. This film never provides any answers but instead provides food for thought so that the audience might find their own answers. The film draws parallels with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as it considers the implications of creating a being with a human consciousness. It is Caleb who declares that “to erase the line between man and machine is to obscure the line between men and gods”. An exciting thought but also a terrifying one.

★★★★★