Film Review – Tomb Raider (2018)
Tomb Raider (2018)
Tomb Raider (2018) is arguably the best film ever made based on a video game franchise. That’s not really saying much given the history of video game movies. This is the subgenre that spawned the likes of the Resident Evil and Hitman series. Even the previous adaptations of Tomb Raider – starring Angelina Jolie – weren’t exactly the shining beacons of blockbuster entertainment. So to say that this latest release, now featuring Alicia Vikander as the adventurer Lara Croft, is the best of the bunch is not saying a lot given how low the bar has been set.
But still, this goes to show that bringing video games to the big screen might be worthwhile. Writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, along with director Roar Uthaug, craft an action adventure tale that is perfectly acceptable, despite being mostly forgettable. While we are in the midst of it, we get caught up in the globetrotting, treasure hunting, and death defying stunts, but none leave much resonance for us to walk away with. This is not necessarily a bad thing; movies have every right to be mindless distractions. But why settle on just being “ok?” Maybe my mild enthusiasm is based on the notion that this had the potential to be something great.
Vikander plays Lara without the trappings of your routine action hero. Yes, she is tough and resilient, but Vikander gives her enough vulnerability through her performance to feel like a flesh and blood human. The plot involves Lara’s quest to find her father (Dominic West) who disappeared when she was a young girl to search for a mystical tomb buried on an island somewhere near Japan. She comes to the possession of her father’s research, with everything that helped guide him to where the tomb potentially is. Now, why exactly did her father leave all of these items back home when he surely could have used them on his hunt for the tomb? The narrative explains that he did so to avoid it falling into the wrong hands. Instead of destroying the information herself, Lara uses it to trace her father’s path, following him to where he was last seen.
The first half of Tomb Raider is the strongest, as we watch Lara piece together the clues and make her way toward her destination. Along the way, she teams up with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) in China, striking a deal for him to take her on his boat to the hidden island. Lu Ren is a wayward drunk, but meeting Lara causes him to set a legitimate goal for himself, even though his character doesn’t do much else once they land on the island. Vikander and Wu have a nice on screen chemistry, and there are hints of a possible romance. Luckily there’s not too much focus on this aspect. Who has time for romance when you’re caught in the middle of a treasure hunt and manhunt at the same time?
When we finally reach the island is when things downshift into basic action. Walton Goggins shows up as your generic villain, a man so desperate to find the tomb that he’s willing kill his own men to get it. There’s a lot of gun shooting, sprinting, and explosions during this section. I have an inkling that many of the set pieces that were a part of the video game were translated here, as we see Lara encounter physical perils one after another. At one point, she’s in the middle of a shootout with nothing but a bow and arrow, and a few minutes later she’s hurtling down a river towards a waterfall, and then soon after trying to escape out of a wrecked plane as it crumbles into pieces. These moments aren’t bad in a vacuum, but given that they are structured one right after the other feels the most “video gamey” compared to everything else.
One of the joys of adventure stories – especially those that feature puzzles, clues, and mysteries – is watching our characters use their intelligence to solve them. The granddaddy of this is, of course, the Indiana Jones series. Through each of those installments, each obstacle Indy faced was clearly conceived with logic. We understood precisely how Indy needed to solve them. In Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), we knew why he had to take sand out of his bag when trying to take that golden statue. That element is missing in Tomb Raider. Yes, we learn early that Lara is adept at solving puzzles, but Uthaug doesn’t allow us to follow her thought process in doing so. When Lara has to open an entryway into an underground cavern, the design of the puzzle is so poorly conceived that we have no idea how Lara found her way through it. She solved it basically because the plot needs her to.
I’m not sure any of us are going to be talking about Tomb Raider a few years from now (or even in a few months), but it does mark a promising change in a subgenre that had been in the dumps for years. It has some nice thrills, a few emotional character scenes, and is driven by a committed, physical lead performance. It is completely, exactly, and absolutely ok.