Though entertaining in the moment and briskly paced, Tomb Raider never overcomes feeling like a video game that you watch instead of play.
The Tomb Raider video games have been around since 1996 and first made the jump to the big screen with a pair of Angelina Jolie-led movies in the early 2000s. 2018's Tomb Raider is a reboot of the film series that, like the reboot game released in 2013, imbues the globe-trotting archaeological adventure title with a greater sense of realism, yet retains its pulpy feeling. With Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander assuming the role of protagonist Lara Croft and Roar Uthaug - director of the acclaimed Norwegian natural disaster thriller The Wave - calling the shots, the Tomb Raider reboot makes for a fun but hollow cinematic relaunch of the franchise. Though entertaining in the moment and briskly paced, Tomb Raider never overcomes feeling like a video game that you watch instead of play.
Tomb Raider picks up with Lara as a 21 year old woman who spends her days living recklessly while making her way as a bike courier in modern day London. Still haunted by the mysterious disappearance of her father Richard (Dominic West) seven years earlier, Lara insists on earning a living on her own despite having access to a massive inheritance. She similarly refuses the repeated requests from Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) - her father's longtime business associate - to take over her family's global enterprise, Croft Holdings. Everything changes, however, when Lara learns the truth about her father and what he was up to, right before he vanished.
It turns out that Richard was investigating the legend of Himiko, the Queen of Yamatai, and a mysterious organization known as Trinity that wants to find Himiko's tomb for its own nefarious purposes. Despite being left a recorded warning from Richard to destroy all of his research, Lara decides to go searching for the island of Yamatai instead, in the hope of learning what really happened to her father. With the assistance of Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), the son of the boat captain who took Richard to Yamatai all those years ago, Lara manages to make her way to the remote island. There, she encounters Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins), an archaeologist who works for Trinity and will stop at nothing to find Himiko's tomb after years of searching,
Written by relative newcomer Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (Trespass Against Us) and based on a story that Robertson-Dworet and Evan Daugherty (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) are credited for, Tomb Raider makes for a serviceable Lara Croft origin story and prequel/reboot to the Jolie films. The movie further plays out as a glorified pilot episode for future sequels, in that it leaves big plot threads dangling and devotes its world-building efforts more towards setting up a franchise than serving the story at hand. Tomb Raider is naturally driven more by action than plot and aims to create the feeling that danger lurks around every corner for Lara, no matter where she is. Ultimately, however, the film's action scenes and set pieces feel more like (you guessed it) challenges in a video game that Lara must beat in order to reach the next cutscene, rather than a series of events that form a streamlined narrative.
Still, Tomb Raider knows better than to let its foot off the gas pedal at any time, and that makes it engaging to watch scene-to-scene. Vikander similarly makes for a solid Lara Croft in a film that aims for a more feminist approach to both the character and the larger Tomb Raider mythology. It's partly successful in this respect, allowing Vikander's Lara to overcome some rather grueling physical challenges and use her brains without being overly sexualized or objectified at the same time - something the reboot games have also striven to do. Even so, this version of Lara is still pretty two-dimensional and lacking when it comes to memorable personality traits besides recklessness and determination. Lara's relationship with her father doesn't leave much of an emotional impact either and serves as a plot device to motivate Lara and drive her character's evolution in the film, more than anything else.
Tomb Raider's attempts to create a thematic motif about fatherhood also comes up short, as its various characters' daddy issues (Lara's included) are never fleshed out or explored with any real depth. As is the case with Lara, the film's main players are cardboard personalities that would be otherwise forgettable were it not for the performances behind them. Wu, in particular, helps to make Lu more memorable by carrying over some of the same charisma and rugged action hero presence that has made him a fan-favorite on the TV show Into the Badlands. Goggins similarly does his part to make Vogel feel less like a mustache-twirling villain and more like a world-weary antagonist whose goals are understandable, even though his means for achieving them are wrong.
In terms of craftsmanship, Tomb Raider mostly succeeds in giving the franchise a grittier makeover. Uthaug and his cinematographer George Richmond (the Kingsman movies) shoot much of the film's stunts and fight scenes in quick-cutting closeups, giving the movie a fittingly Jason Bourne-esque rough and tumble style. At the same time, they do struggle to seamlessly integrate CGI elements into the film's practical locations and sets (especially when it concerns the infamous traps from the Tomb Raider games). Thankfully, the movie comes with an exhilarating score by Tom Holkenborg (aka. Junkie XL) to keep the proceedings feeling exciting and epic, even when Tomb Raider comes up short in other aesthetic departments.
Tomb Raider probably won't go down as the film that finally broke the video game movie "curse", but it does show that video game adaptations can make for decent (if disposable) genre entertainment. The movie is lacking in substance, yet it avoids getting bogged down in a convoluted mythology - something that has tripped up other video game adaptations in recent years - and should offer a perfectly enjoyable watch at home, since it's not necessarily worth a trip to the theater. It remains to be seen if Tomb Raider gets the sequels that it wants, but at least Vikander has proven that she has a future as a credible action hero on the big screen.
Tomb Raider is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 118 minutes long and is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language.
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