The history of Lara Croft is the history of female video game characters. Debuting in 1996 with the very first Tomb Raider game for PC, Playstation and the now forgotten Sega Saturn, Lara Croft, though shakily animated in early 3-D rendering, has long stood the female equivalent to the predominantly male adventurer/archeologist figure throughout the video game and cinematic world. Angelina Jolie achieved superstardom cramming into a skin-tight black wife beater and sporting a fistful of pistols as the titular character in the largely maligned 2001 Simon West adaptation, which saw a slightly less maligned, but less financially successful, sequel drop in 2006. The plug was soon pulled on Jolie’s tomb raiding days. Enjoying a celebrated franchise reboot in 2013 courtesy of publisher Square Enix, the game itself has never been better and the folks crammed into smart Hollywood suits wisely cast rising star Alicia Vikander to put a new spin on the resurrected character.
That brings us to the 2018 reboot of Tomb Raider, a movie that is admittedly flawed but fitfully entertaining, that takes little risk but manages some deceptively good payoff and that introduces the world to a version of the Lara Croft character that, with a little luck, should be invited back into the cineplexes for a few more runs. Vikander is just that good in the role. In spite of Tomb Raider’s dodgy elements, lame scripting issues and stolid dry spots, the Oscar-winning actress truly gives it her all, turning what could have been a cinematic cash in into a platform for her to actually – and I know this might be shocking – act. Vikander proves a standout iteration of the iconic video game character for many reasons, bringing new pathos and a battering ram physicality to a once literal two-dimensional character whose primary physical attribute was her oversized mammary glands. She’s intelligent and brave, unafraid to get down and dirty, and takes her licks without whining. This is a Lara Croft that fits the woke ethics of 2018, a leading lady that isn’t over-sexualized (despite Jolie’s obvious efforts as the character, her heaving bewbs were basically co-stars) but remains drop-dead nonetheless. A synthesis of street-smart acumen, kick ass abs and parkour, Vikaner’s Croft is a wonder woman of her own making.
A straight adaptation of the 2013 video game of the same name, Tomb Raider plays with mythos and gritty “realism”, plagiarizing a plethora of notes from the Indiana Jones playbook (with direct visual references to Raiders of the Lost Arc, Temple of Doom and The Last Crusade). Years after her father has disappeared, Lara stumbles upon his father’s office, where a video recording of him warns of the island Yamatai, his last known destination. There lies Himiko, a mythical Queen said to command the power of life and death with but a touch. As Lara races off to find her father with the help of drunken sailor Lu Ren (a not-very-good Daniel Wu), the threat of a sinister organization known only as Trinity looms.
The film from Roar Uthaug, who directed the fantastic 2015 Norwegian disaster epic The Wave, doesn’t smuggle the same genre-defying intelligence that his prior effort did – lots of Tomb Raider is numb, bumbling and ripped from better movies – but Uthaug and his production team make good work of bringing the world of Tomb Raider to life. Resplendent and lush, Yamatai feels like an undiscovered wonder and Uthaug champions practical sets over clunky CG as much as possible, squaring Lara in a transportive viny jungle that masters the wowing mystique of a lost empire. His vision is sure to please fans of the game by also introducing the reboot’s high tension, overtly cinematic brushes with death and featuring Lara’s iconic gadgets (the old school bow and arrow and the handy red pickaxe).
One of its biggest drawbacks remains that Tomb Raider – like a bowl of frozen soup – takes much too long to heat up, with a non-starter of a first act that gives Lara a totally feckless bicycle messenger origin that promptly wastes 15 minutes and liters in a host of sepia-toned flashbacks to her childhood, where we evidently must overdevelop the bond between Lara and her long-missing father (Dominic West). It doesn’t help that the script from first-time penners Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is store-brand generic, finding little room for subverting expectations, often relying on repeating moments to explain why this or that is occurring. Once the exposition talk dies down and we settle into the gloomy, unwelcoming kinks of Yamatai, Tomb Raider improves immensely.
When Vikander is by herself, battling off the elements or choking out henchmen, the movie sings. Her determined grunts and groans, a symphony of never-give-up workmanship, helps give an aural component as Lara is molded into such a fierce and fun hero. Walton Goggins too adds value as the scenery-smacking villain Vogel, a baddie with a tangle of wiry hairy and stained teeth with just the faintest hint of motivation for his character choices to make sense if you squint a lot.
There’s no debating that Uthaug’s Tomb Raider is a hearty improvement over the two Jolie films but despite Vikander’s superstar-making turn as Lara Croft and a delirious quest through a merrily-designed tomb or two, Tomb Raider as a whole remains a somewhat benign creation. A fun ride in fits and starts, Uthaug’s film can’t sustain the excitement and dilutes what could have been a few good hours of adventuring with nonstarter side characters and a larger overarching conspiracy plot a la The Amazing Spider-Man that tries to broaden the film’s universe while actually making it feel smaller. While I’m admittedly eager to see Vikander’s take on the character return to the big screen, I hope for something a bit more focused, nuanced and holistic the next time around. And so long as the creative team doesn’t start pilfering bits from The Crystal Skull, we’re probably still on the right track.
CONCLUSION: Alicia Vikander proves more than worthy of filling the shoes of Lara Croft in this hit-and-miss adaptation of the video game character. Despite a killer leading lady, a few strong set pieces and generally captivating production design, ‘Tomb Raider’ can’t live up to its star power thanks to a borrowed plot (entire sequences are stolen from Indiana Jones), store-brand generic script and the mounting time it takes to finally build inertia.