Directed By: Roar Uthaug
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Dominic West, Daniel Wu
Nearly 22 years have gone by since the world was first introduced to Lara Croft in the video game Tomb Raider, and the British archaeologist - then gaming's female answer to Indiana Jones - has long since become a gaming icon, backed by a legacy of ups and downs that have led to where we are today, with the arrival of Roar Uthaug's Tomb Raider. The new film takes its inspiration from 2013's critically-acclaimed Tomb Raider, a game that served to wipe the slate clean of two decades' worth of franchise baggage in order to give Lara – and fans – a fresh start in an origin story that showcased a young, inexperienced version of the character discovering who she's destined to become.
The script for Uthaug's film, delivered by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, follows a similar path, with Alicia Vikander stepping into Lara's boots, her characterization far from the gun-toting, globe-trotting superheroine that Lara had been for years following her introduction (and how she was presented the first time Hollywood attempted to bring Lara to the big screen with Angelina Jolie's two outings in 2001 and 2003.) In this interpretation of the character, Lara Croft lives a life getting by as a bike courier several years on from the disappearance of her father, Richard Croft, but after events unfold that lead to her discovering a clue as to where her father may be, she finds herself traveling to Hong Kong.
From there, she hooks up with a ship captain named Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu, whose father also went missing with Richard when the two men set sail into the Devil's Sea, a dangerous expanse of ocean home to the island of Yamatai. It is there that Richard believed he would find the tomb of Himiko, a queen who may or may not have had supernatural powers, and for the sake of answers about whether or not their fathers are alive, the two head off together to find Yamatai.
Now, before I go any further, I have to make a quick comparison to the 2013 game that the film attempts to emulate. That game picks up with Lara and a roster of allies already aboard a similar ship, and it's not long before Lara is stranded on an island and thrust into action. Understandably, the film attempts to turn back the clock a bit in an effort to relay Lara's story chronologically without having to heavily rely upon flashbacks in its own narrative to explain how and why she’s on a ship, but in doing so, the film stumbles right out of the gate with languid, almost interminable pacing, its first act and a chunk of its second weighted down so heavily by needless moments like an extended bike chase sequence that feel more like wheel-spinning than necessity. We're shown important things about Lara's character, like the fact that she practices fighting - something that comes into play later in the film - but it's couched in filler that slows everything to a crawl on its way to get to where the game picks up, wasting nearly half the film before the ball gets rolling.
And then, once Lara and Lu have set sail and - surprise! - end up stranded on the island of Yamatai, the film decides to move too fast. It's on the island that Lara is captured by Walton Goggins' Mathias Vogel, the leader of a small faction working for an organization called Trinity who has enslaved dozens of people to help uncover Himiko's tomb so that Trinity can utilize the queen's powers (whatever they may be) and turn them on the world. There are hints given that Vogel may not have a real choice about what he's doing and that Trinity is exploiting leverage against him, but any sense of sympathy that Goggins - an otherwise excellent and always-welcome actor in other projects - infuses the character with is swept aside for the sake of racing towards the endgame, his character's rapid descent into cartoonish, two-dimensional villainy a symptom of the film's abrupt decision to go from baby steps to a full sprint in pacing.
This is also evident in how Lara's development is affected. Like the game, Tomb Raider is designed to showcase how Lara morphs from a relatively innocent yet rudderless young woman into a confident hero with purpose, and the film has no problem taking its time early on highlighting things like Lara's money problems or longing to have her father back to demonstrate the former concept. However, a sequence where Lara is forced to take a life for the first time - a pretty massive event that Lara clearly struggles with in the moment - has its emotional impact undermined by having Lara immediately run off in pursuit of something else, only to have no problem firing arrows into Vogel's men not long after, a switch in development that happens so quickly you’ll be feeling whiplash. Had the film slowed down upon her arrival on Yamatai, moments like this could've been expanded upon to actually give Vikander something to chew on dramatically, or for Goggins to give us the three-dimensional villain that feels left on the cutting room floor, and glossing over or cutting out that type of character work - something even the game took the time to explore, at least in terms of Lara's arc - holds the movie back in a big way.
Not helping matters is that the film also has some strange tonal issues. A scene involving Lara dealing with a pawn shop owner (Nick Frost) and his wife (Jaime Winstone) is played purely for comedy, so much so that it sticks out like a sore thumb because it's at odds with the rest of the film, which never presents itself as an action-comedy. Another sequence wherein Lara chases down a trio of teenagers who stole her bag in Hong Kong is punctuated by a joke involving a drunken Lu Ren falling over a railing unconscious, both the character moment and the joke itself landing with a resounding thud.
Even further, when the film tries to be serious, it doesn't lean into it enough. The aforementioned scene where Lara kills someone for the first time is played as though it will carry weight, only until it doesn't, and moments where Lara gets wounded, such as when her stomach is punctured by a tree branch, inadvertently make her feel superhuman rather than human, as they barely seem to hold her back, the character going on to participate in further physics-defying antics. As a result, from the misplaced comedy to its shying away from the type of gritty film it could've been, Tomb Raider perpetually feels at war with itself, trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible rather than owning any type of singular identity, the end result being a generic product that feels more assembled by community than by an artist with a clear vision.
It's unfortunate, too, as Vikander isn't a terrible lead; she's just surrounded by a movie unwilling to capitalize on the full talents of the actress it's been gifted with. Unsurprisingly, the film spends its final moments setting up a sequel rather than wrapping up this film with reveals fans of the 2013 game's sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, will see coming a mile away, but it's that borderline arrogant assumption on behalf of those involved that this film deserves a series of sequels all its own without actually earning it that left me with a sour taste in my mouth. Vikander - and Lara Croft, for that matter - deserved a better film, one with an actual personality that had something to say and wasn't more concerned about where Lara is going than it is about where she is now.
In the end, Tomb Raider is nothing more than serviceable, the type of background noise movie that you end up finding on a channel five years from now while you're focused on something else. Hopefully, should it get the sequel it so desperately wants, those involved can learn from what held this film back from being something people will remember by the end of the year (or even the end of summer). As it is, though, it's neither great nor terrible, trapped in that gray area of mediocrity where average movies with no truly standout traits go to become distant memories, and that's the most disappointing thing about it.
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