Across the numerous entries in the two-decades-plus spanning Tomb Raider video game franchise, Lara Croft has had to deal with her fair share of curses. When it comes to her cinematic interpretations though, she has had to face two of the most daunting ones out there: The Curse of the Oscar-Winning Actress and The Curse of the Video Game Movie.
As for the first, several actresses have fallen victim when they went from securing awards gold for a dramatic role to starring in some critically panned genre film garbage soon thereafter. See: Charlize Theron going from Monster to Aeon Flux, Halle Berry going from Monster’s Ball to Catwoman. And back in 2001, when Lara Croft was first brought to the big screen, it was Angelina Jolie who was raiding tombs after picking up an Oscar.
To be fair, Jolie did not embarrass herself, being about as close to the 1990s version of the character as you could get, but the movie was bad. Fun, yes. But still bad. It was like eating a triple bacon cheeseburger: I would smile all the way while consuming it, but I would know that it was terrible for me. Most fans weren’t too disappointed with what it did deliver though because The Curse of the Video Game Movie basically also stated that anything adapted from a video game to screen would always be horrible so lower your expectations to cthonic levels. All of which leads me to 2018 and the new Tomb Raider movie starring another Oscar-winner in Alicia Vikander… and how it may just have broken both curses in one go.
Now before you get too excited, this new movie directed by Norwegian filmmaker Roar Uthaug is not mind-blowing. It has a not-insubstantial amount of faults that are very hard to ignore. However, when compared to previous video game feature film adaptations, there’s a competency of solidly entertaining action adventure filmmaking here that makes it about as rare as those ancient treasures our favourite ponytailed grave robber is always searching for.
In this case though, it’s not a treasure that young Ms. Croft is after but her father. Borrowing heavily in places from the critically acclaimed 2013 Tomb Raider video game reboot and its 2015 sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider – which upped the franchise’s realism and grit as it told the dramatic origin story of how Lara Croft went from aristocratic heiress to hardened survivor and explorer – this film sees a young Lara wasting away her potential as a bike courier in London. Cash-strapped to the point of not even being able to pay for her MMA lessons, Lara is living in denial of acknowledging that her wealthy businessman father Richard Croft (Dominic West) is actually dead after going missing 7 years prior. This means not signing the papers that makes his death official and which allows her access to her vast inheritance.
However, when Lara unearths a clue about her father’s secret obsession with a Japanese myth on an uncharted island off the coast of Japan, it sees her following halfway around the world in his dangerous footsteps, right into the path of megalomaniacal secret organization Trinity and its plans for world domination.
For the most part, Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons’ script hews extremely closely to the combination of narratives taken from the two most recent games. Character rosters and narrative diversions are trimmed down heavily to hit that two-hour running time, but there’s a clear belief in the source material that’s admirable. The filmmakers show no need to reinvent or throw in extraneous elements just to prove that they can be creative too. They take the games that worked and put them on screen. It’s a simple thing, but one that has been the undoing of so many before it.
Similarly, for the film’s barrage of action scenes – including barreling escape sequences, hand to hand scraps, and death-defying puzzles and traps – Uthaug lifts most of them straight from the games. He also engineers other beats with such uncanny closeness to the feel of its source material (not to mention a fedora tip to original Tomb Raider inspiration Indiana Jones) that if I had leaned over in the cinema to see a video game console attached to the screen and a Nordic man operating the controls I would not have been surprised.
Unfortunately, they stick so close to the source in places that they copy its problems as well. Just like in the 2013 game, when Lara kills somebody for the first time here it’s a frantic, frightened scramble that is all sloppy, manic desperation and leaves this young girl, out of her physical depth, racked with emotion at what had just happened. And then, just like in the game, just a few scenes later she’s turning expendable henchmen into pincushions with unerring accuracy from her bow and arrow with nary a care. Also, if you were part of the hardcore fandom that hated the introduction of Lara’s father into the narrative in Rise of the Tomb Raider – it took a fiercely independent heroine and feminist icon who was out adventuring because she wanted to, and turned her motivation into being all about trying to live up to another man in her life – well, then you’ll hate it here as well. There’s no getting around that.
Even if you don’t agree with this characterization, at least Vikander is there though to sell it all. As Lara, she’s fantastic. Boasting a ripped physique and an immensely commendable dedication to the role’s physicality, Vikander also gets to flex some dramatic muscles. Like the reboot game, this movie leans heavily on the serious side, keeping the punchlines to the minimum, and as such actually gives the actress something to sink her thespian teeth into. It’s not much, but she makes it work anyway.
The rest of the cast is a bit more hard done by though. Both Daniel Wu as Lu Ren – the drunk boat captain Lara hires to take her to the remote island her father disappeared to – and Walton Goggins as Matthias Vogel – the Trinity villain stuck on this island until he completes his mission – show promising early signs of backstories, only for that to be forgotten in short course as they devolve to generic Capable Side Kick and Mean Bad Guy roles. Also, while Uthaug takes advantage of his locations well for some great visuals, there are a few moments of some iffy CGI when Lara has to leap into/over/out of a dangerous situation, to the point where you can almost see the green screen leering out at you from behind the action.
Even with those detractions though, what Uthaug delivers here is just a solidly decent action film that’s worth the price of admission. Hardcore fans will have their (admittedly valid) concerns, but general audiences should lap this up. Like just about any blockbuster release coming out of Hollywood lately, Tomb Raider blatantly already sets up a sequel (or sequels, plural, if Warner Bros has any say in things), and I would actually be very happy to raid more tombs with them. This definitely makes for a nice change of pace of generally wanting to fall to my death in a spiked pit after watching most video game movies.
Last Updated: March 15, 2018
Is Tomb Raider a mind-blowing cinematic marvel? Definitely not. But what it is though is a surprisingly solidly action adventure that successfully translates its source to screen, while also boasting a great lead in Alicia Vikander who carries both the physical stunts and dramatics on her chiselled shoulders well.