What video game movie curse? It may have had questionable trailers and a very muted sense of hype, but with Tomb Raider, Alicia Vikander has finally done what Michael Fassbender, Angelina Jolie and 50 percent of Paul W. S. Anderson’s entire career couldn't: she's made a good video game movie.
Much of Tomb Raider's success does lie on the Swedish Oscar winner. She is inspirational to Wonder Woman levels as Lara Croft, showing a quaking physicality and adeptness that due to its everyday origins inspires more than your random super soldier or God. This is a protagonist you care for; her struggles defy privilege backgrounds and smarmy city-traversing cycling games to be immediately relatable. But a good character does not a good movie make. After all, Angelina Jolie was pretty spot on for her different era take on Lady Croft and it's nigh impossible to watch either of her outings with a straight face.
Make no mistake, Tomb Raider 2018 is all around a pretty great movie. It's exhilarating, affecting, surprising and fun. There are issues for sure - in particular, there are strangely choppy tonal transitions between scenes and some of the meatier aspects away from Lara could have done with more exploration - but no more than you'd find in any other action adventure movie. And that is the key to how Tomb Raider breaks the video game movie curse: it's not a video game movie.
This Page: The Unspoken Problem With Video Game Movies
Video Game Movies Suck Because We Treat The Them Like Video Games
Explaining why video game movies don't work has been done to death and isn't really conducive to the discussion. A lot of the oft-stated reasons - movies lack the autonomy of games, no depth in the source, anything to do with too much or too little accuracy - are valid for an individual project, yet superficial if we're talking about the full situation; they're no less true of movies based on books, which run the full gamut of quality. While simplistic, though, the autonomy point - that a film can't match the involvement of a game because you're not in control, essentially turning the movie into a feature-length cutscene - does reveal a mentality that explains the problem. Games are treated as too literal a source.
"Video game" is not a genre. It's a medium. To even use the phrase "video game movie" is to defeat a film because it is immediately defined by its source. There are as many genres of video games as there are any other artform (more, in anything, given the variance of playstyle) and yet we never treat their adaptations with the same weight. Historical-sci-fi-action-adventure Assassin's Creed raises the same question as high-fantasy-epic Warcraft. If you used similar logic, then any movie based on a book should be measured alongside all others, be the source E.L. James or Stephen King.
The best counter-example here is comic books. Due to their pulp origins, movies based on graphic novels used to lumped in together. And while they still are to a degree thanks to superhero blockbusters dominating, things have evolved. Crucially, the methodology by which they're adapted is different: Marvel and DC famously don't lift direct stories from the page, rather distilling the character, ideals and core story and finding a way to work it on screen. Success here is defined less by the medium of origin and more the skill of the filmmakers. We're now at a point where even superhero movies traverse genres - between The Dark Knight to Thor: Ragnarok is a gulf that defies comparison.
The fact that you can usually tell source-unseen if a film is based on a video game is the intrinsic problem here. Everyone - from studio execs to directors to marketers to audiences - all treat video game movies as a set type, and they inevitably follow the same adaptation rules. It's not about making a film from the game, but making the game into a film: facsimiles of the experience in a different form. Directors recreate the specific gameplay trick as a selling point, lift what vague story they can from a limited pool (until recently video game movies came from games with slight narratives) and fill the rest with whatever basic world they can cook up. Look at King of Bad Video Game Movies Super Mario Bros., which stretches the princess-saving to breaking point, only pausing for a bizarre jumping scene. Few have done it as bad, but almost all - even financially successful cases like Resident Evil - have followed the rule.
That's why movies inspired by video games in an abstract sense - Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle - capture the feeling without any of the weighings down. They're building from a different direction, adding flavor rather than having it be the full meal. That's something Tomb Raider is much closer to.