One of the primary reasons video game adaptations are so difficult to get right is because of the innate difference between what we get from games and what we get from movies. When you strip agency away from most games, what you’re left with is narrative soup. There are a handful of games where I feel like the narrative was strong enough that if I’d just watched it passively, I still would have been interested or compelled by what took place… but not many.
When you’re giving me the chance to control everything, then keeping the characterization thin is a feature, not a bug. You’re giving me a chance to project onto the character in a way that makes the experience feel like something that is happening, not something I’m just observing. That’s a good thing in gaming, and Lara Croft has traditionally been a near-perfect blank. I’ve been playing the Tomb Raider games since they were introduced, and the charge of the early games was pretty simple. They were puzzle-solving action games that felt like they existed on the cutting edge of what could be done with each of the consoles, and they were fun because of the way they hinted at the Indiana Jones-style mayhem that would one day be possible with gaming. I remember long evenings turning into night turning into morning, all passing in a blur of motorboat chases and moving blocks and climbing things complete with frustrating random jumps because you touched the wrong part of the direction pad. I remember the odd moments like “Wait, they have DINOSAURS in this game?!” that would leave everyone in the room laughing.
The first time they tried bringing Lara Croft to the big screen, they steered into the “big” side of that equation, and the results were fairly lifeless. There were some promising early drafts on the first film by Laeta Kalogridis that did a nice job of making the relationship between Lara and her father central to the story, and when the new TOMB RAIDER works, it works because they spend time making sure Lara is a human being first, and an action icon second. The bar is so low in the “video game-to-movie’ genre, though, that there’s almost no point discussing the genre as a whole. No one’s really cracked the code yet, so there’s a lot of attention on each of these big-budget adaptations to see if anyone can finally make all of this time and money spent trying to make an active medium into a passive one actually worthwhile.
When they rebooted the game series a few years ago, it was one of the most successful updates of a AAA title that I’ve seen. The main thing it did was make Lara Croft vulnerable. It genuinely hurt when Lara got hurt in that game. She wasn’t just some hardened killer, some action hero where mayhem is just a reflex. She was learning how to survive, and it made the game seem much more absorbing. The new film is taking its cues from that reboot, and while I can’t say I love the new movie, I think it’s a solid, decent action film that remembers to put the focus on character as much as it can, and it feels like a big step in the right direction for video game movies as a whole.
The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons is largely functional, built with a sort of A-B-C plodding literal-mindedness that never really swept me away like a great adventure movie can, but there are some good choices in the film. It opens with Lara (Alicia Vikander) in motion, constantly running from her feelings about the disappearance of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), seven years earlier. The film spends a good deal of energy showing us how Lara’s a scrapper — training as a fighter, working as a bike messenger — and there’s a credibility that the film earns in these sequences that helps carry us when the action starts getting bigger later in the film. Vikander’s a wee thing, and regardless of gender, the thing I look for in an action lead is some sort of sense that they are capable of the things the movie suggests. Watching how she fights, and how she uses her size, I buy this Lara Croft. She’s never positioned as an unstoppable superhero, and when she fights people larger than her, the fights are never about brute strength.
More importantly, the film takes a few beats that make all the difference. The first time Lara is in a huge action set piece, she gets pretty seriously hurt, and watching her lay on the ground, crying, trying to catch her breath and take inventory of the damage, it makes all the difference. That’s what a human being would do. They wouldn’t just pop up and run off like everything was fine. Sure, it’s an adventure movie, so people shrug off things that would be mobility-ending in real life, but at least they hint at the truth of it. That’s what I need if I’m going to buy into the idea that there are stakes to any of this. Even more important is the moment after Lara first kills one of the film’s villains. It’s a close-up ugly fight, and she manages to win by being smart about how the fight unfolds. But when she kills the guy, there’s nothing fun or cool about it, and it rattles her. You can see how upset she is. There’s no monologue. But the moment lands. You feel it, because she feels it, and that’s an important transition that I’m glad the movie takes the time to acknowledge.
The film itself is okay. Lara learns that her father wasn’t what he seemed, and she retraces the steps of his disappearance. She hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to an island off the coast of Japan where her father believed an ancient death cult queen had been buried. Once she arrives, she learns that Mathias Vogel (the great Walton Goggins) killed her father and has been searching for the tomb for the last seven years. Much is made of the idea that it’s almost impossible to get to the island and even harder to get off, but the film makes it clear how dumb that is in the last 10 minutes, and there’s no real tension established regarding whether or not they’ll be able to get home. The actual quest for the tomb is pretty straightforward, with almost no narrative complications at all. Here’s a map. There’s a thing. Dig. Yep. The set pieces are okay, and there is a feeling that they’re structured in a way that suggests gameplay without aping it exactly.
Vikander works, though. In addition to being physically credible, she makes Lara an emotionally-grounded character. I like how unpolished she is as an action star. One of the reasons 2018 Bruce Willis is a bore compared to 1988 Bruce Willis is because no one believed he could be an action star when he made Die Hard. It may seem hard for modern audiences to remember, but there was open skepticism about that film when he was cast, and he had to prove that he was more than “just” a wise-cracking goofball. Vikander’s obviously been acclaimed as an actor so far, and she’s great in things as different as Ex Machina and The Danish Girl. I liked her a lot in The Man From UNCLE, but no one saw that, unfortunately. If you want to work on both studio and indie films these days, you have to be able to play a superhero just as nimbly as you can play a grief counselor to troubled teens, and Vikander manages to play the human-scale heroics of Lara Croft very well, making it feel like she’s just barely pulling it all off, which makes it more entertaining.
As a director, Roar Uthaug (The Wave) sure does seem to like it when people run or ride a motorcycle or get pulled along a river. He’s good at propulsive energy. He’s less adept when it comes to building the actual set pieces in and around the tomb, and if there’s one thing that is really disappointing here, it’s how little invention there is when it comes to the traps and the mysteries of the tomb. The film feels indifferent to that material, and that’s a shame. That’s only part of the title of the entire franchise, but I guess if you’re talking about the film’s strengths and weaknesses, it’s good that character is high on the list of things they got right. Raiders of the Lost Ark was 37 years ago, and the first 10 minutes of that film still cast such a profound shadow over the genre that no one has even come close to building a better mousetrap.
Goggins is Goggins, and if you already understand his appeal, then that should be enough to tell you what you’re getting. There’s not much on the page for him, but he’s giving it all he’s got to try and make it work. This film spends some serious shoe leather on setting up a larger ongoing series, and I’m all for seeing more of Kristin Scott Thomas in the Tomb Raider world, but it feels a little pushy considering how mild-mannered things are as a whole. Maybe if they do end up making another one, they’ll pay a little more attention to the tombs they’re raiding, because they’ve clearly got the right Lara Croft. Keep it human-scale, make it hurt, and they just might finally have convinced me that there’s a reason for this to be a movie.
But I’m still looking forward to the next game in the series more.
Running time: 118 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic