Review: Tomb Raider

Director: Roar Uthaug

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins

Films adapted from video games suck. We all know this. We’ve all been down this road and been burned too many times before. Even the occasional arguments to the contrary – the first Silent Hill movie, for instance – are, if we’re honest, only ever kinda okay. This is an arena with a very low glass ceiling.

The Angelina Jolie movies of this particular franchise didn’t trouble said ceiling, in fact they avoided it by a great distance. They were inoffensively silly and wholly naff. Disposable in the extreme. This reboot comes as a bit of a surprise. When announced it seemed just as unnecessary, and with all we know about this terrain, rather uninspiring. But don’t write it off just yet…

Tomb Raider circa 2018 is, if nothing else, the best Tomb Raider movie thus far. Wisely ignoring the prior entries, it instead goes back to the start and, with a similar sense of course-correction found in the recent games, tries to inject some semblance of immediacy and reality into proceedings. At least up to a point.

So it’s origin story time. We meet Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) at a gym in London where she loses to an MMA sparring partner. We learn she can’t pay for the lessons. This is a different woman than the one Jolie personified. While heir to the vast Croft estate, Lara refuses to acknowledge that her father (Dominic West) is in all likelihood dead, having been missing for seven years, and so she lives close(ish) to poverty. London is rather thrillingly portrayed as an urban assault course in these early scenes, as Lara scrambles to make money by participating in a cycle race known as a ‘fox hunt’.

Like the match at the gym, she doesn’t exactly win this either.

This is key set-up that shows us a fallible woman. Strong and determined, yes, but not always guaranteed a win. Lara Croft is not a superhero and Tomb Raider goes to great pains to remind us of that. It pays dividends later on.

Plot machinations kick in and Lara finds herself on the trail of her missing father. Visiting Hong Kong, she charters a vessel belonging to gambler Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and together they go in search of an island off of the Japanese coast; the last place that Lord Richard Croft planned to investigate as part of his own mythic quest. A storm shipwrecks them (these scenes, for the record, are impressively realised), and it is only then that Lara comes to realise the scale of the situation she has been drawn into.

Where Jolie’s Lara bounded around the screen, seemingly unstoppable, Vikander’s hones and learns her skills through the film. Granted, a fair degree of dramatic licence is invoked, but still we are presented with a woman being pushed beyond her limits and discovering the resources to continue. Falls hurt. Wounds are problems. Video game aerodynamics may ensue, but so do consequences. What’s more, there’s an emotional resonance to these first encounters. Director Roar Uthaug gets in close the first time Lara has to kill someone in order to survive. The struggle is real. In moments such as this, Tomb Raider boldly seems able to push through that glass ceiling. It’s not just a game with a reset button any longer. A new medium has been embraced.

A lot of the credit for this can go to Vikander, who puts her all into a role that charts a course of empowerment. Vikander has shown her worth with standout performances in the likes of Ex Machina and The Danish Girl. She takes on this physically demanding franchise with credible gusto, as though fully committed to turning it into a female-centric alternative to the likes of Bond or Indiana Jones. With her on board there’s no reason that Tomb Raider couldn’t aspire to such longevity at the movies…

Unfortunately, if that’s to happen, she’ll need better stories than this one. The clue’s in the title of course, but the second hour can’t help but underwhelm as we’re put through a number of silly and overly familiar shenanigans and escape rooms, all in the service of raidin’ some tombs. This being an origin piece, that was bound to happen, right? Except that the dynamism that has been applied to Lara Croft herself hasn’t been applied to these story beats. Instead what’s laid on is plenty of ham with a side order of cheese. It’s great that the series has found its leading lady, now if only it can work out what to do with her.

The solution might be to break away from the shackles of expectation and allow things to develop away from the video game template. I’m sure the right creative minds could find a way to make archaeological adventures feel new and exciting again. It’ll all depend on box office returns, of course. The film’s final moments include a readily guessable revelation and pivot around some questionable gun porn, but they do suggest the intention for Lara Croft to return. So long as that’s approached with a little more inventiveness, it’ll be a ride worth taking. In the meantime, even saddled with a bit of a duff story line, this is already one of the best video game movies out there, and that’s down to Vikander.

Score:  3

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