2018 | rated PG-13 | starring Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu | directed by Roar Uthaug | 1hr 58mins |
Studio Pitch: A Tomb Raider reboot about the making of Lara Croft.
The first part of the century gave us two Tomb Raider films with a perfectly cast Angelina Jolie in the title role. While the fun Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and abysmal Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life fizzled the franchise out a cinemas, in the parallel world of video games the original franchise was still kicking around and in 2013 Square Enix released the simply titled game reboot Tomb Raider that re-imagined it’s titular globe-trotting heroine as a scrappy reckless young woman who gets shipwrecked on an island and finds the skills to survive and become a hero.
Video games have made notoriously bad movies; partly because screenwriters have insisted on building movies around game concepts that don’t lend themselves to stories (Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat) or simply take the license and do their own thing with it (Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series, which in fairness is the only to break out beyond it’s game origins). 2018’s Tomb Raider is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie stick to the video game that it’s based on. That’s big. The sets, the color pallet, the main arcs of the story and some of the scenes are shot for shot recreations from the 2013 game. Square Enix did half of the work by telling a fairly cinematic story in their game and here director Roar Uthaug does the other half by approaching this project as if his job here was to simply bring that story to the big screen as true and efficient as possible. While that wouldn’t work with every video game movie, it’s refreshing to see it here. Particularly given what it’s trying to do, I really enjoyed this movie.
The story is a beefier, fuller clothesline to pin shooting, stealth and survival mechanics on. When re-assembled for the big screen Tomb Raider plays out a bit like a Disney Star Wars origin story, knowing Lara Croft’s trademarks (her poneytail, two guns, ability with a bow and arrow and skill at solving puzzles) and working their introductions into the proceedings. Uthaug even works in a stealth sequence for Lara. Because the game character is something of an homage to Indiana Jones and James Bond that influence comes across as derivative in the movie. Uthaug came onto the map with the well-done but straight forward slasher flick Cold Prey and he applies the same approach here. Tomb Raider is played completely straight without a wink and is incredibly well paced (feeling short at a full 2 hours). It’s a modest movie that knows its a 1930s B-movie jungle adventure at heart (we’ve had a few of these lately). Some of the action set pieces are great, none better than Lara hanging by her nails from the wreckage of a jet over a waterfall or an opening bike chase through London. Otherwise, Uthaug has trouble lighting a fire under it. The movie is mostly cold and mechanical. When it reaches it’s big climax with a possessed warlord at the end of a tomb, it feels anti-climactic. Rarely has a threat that could spread across the globe and end mankind seemed so small and routine.
While all of this straight-faced direction is something I complain about in more well-worn genre movies, for a video game movie it’s rare to see one that doesn’t misinterpret it’s game origins as a license to wink and nod and swing for the cheesiest and most outrageous gimmicks it can. In Tomb Raider nobody jump kicks a zombie dog or skis on the wall of a cave or runs around scored to pumping techno music and 80s arcade game references. This all works because Alicia Vikander makes it work. Her commitment to the character, her ability to convey a lot where the script doesn’t and inhabiting the physical demands of Lara as a butt-kicker elevates the material. Walton Goggins is a weak smarmy villain and Dominic West continues to lack much of a screen presence, unable to generate crucial father-daughter chemistry with Vikander that would have given the film a much-needed heart; but Vikander is terrific all the way here.
Tomb Raider is a low-stakes, no frills but well made good time that does exactly what it came to do: adapt the game and set the table for new series. It glides right over the very low bar of bad video game adaptations with a good lead performance and by simply showing an appreciation for the character, the audience and managing a level of filmmaking competence that is damn near revolutionary for this kind of film.