Tomb Raider movie review: despite story problems, Vikander is a perfect Croft

By Alex Donaldson, Thursday, 15 March 2018 15:57 GMT

The new look Lara Croft makes her way to cinemas for a decent attempt at a big-screen franchise reboot.

The 2013 video game reboot of Tomb Raider was really something special. At the time, it got compared to Uncharted a little too often, but when one looks back, just how strongly it worked to redefine Tomb Raider and Lara Croft is clear, as is how successful it was. That success determined the direction of the film franchise, too, with this latest reboot heavily based on the 2013 game.

That means the tongue-in-cheek Angelina Jolie version of the character from the 2001 film is gone, replaced with a more straightforward and honest version of Lara from academy award winner Alicia Vikander. By any measurement that piece of star casting is the greatest of Tomb Raider’s decisions. Vikander makes the role her own on every front, approaching it with a ferocity that really sells Lara as real even while everything around her feels fairly typically popcorn action flick artificial.

Vikander makes the role her own on every front, approaching it with a ferocity that really sells Lara as real even while everything around her feels fairly typically popcorn action flick artificial.

The film begins with a deviation from the games, depicting Lara struggling to make ends meet in London. She’s still from the incredibly rich Croft family, but with her mother dead and father missing, Lara’s on her own. She’s refusing to declare her dad legally dead despite him being missing for the better part of a decade, and without doing that she can’t get at her inheritance. It’s a strong introduction for the character, giving a glimpse at the wry and wise-cracking attitude the old-school Lara is known for bubbling beneath the surface.

It all gets fairly serious pretty quickly, however. Finally presented with clues as to where her father disappeared to, Lara sets off to trace his footsteps. That leads to a long-lost island, and from there the film gets underway with a fairly tight adaptation of the 2013 game, right down to the supernatural side of the plot focusing on the legend of Himiko, an ancient Japanese empress said to have incredible destructive powers. As it turns out, an evil organisation is also on the island, digging and searching for Himiko’s tomb in order to harness her powers for evil means. Lara, in her father’s footsteps, sets out to stop them.

Strangely, a lot of the weaker parts of Tomb Raider’s narrative are nabbed from the video game sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, with sub-plots about Lara’s father and a secretive evil organisation both borrowed from that game and retrofitted to the first game’s basic setting for this film. A lot of the action set-pieces and moments are straight-up borrowed from the game – Lara in the water rapids, Lara with the bow and the pickaxe, Lara surviving a shipwreck, and so on. Director Roar Uthaaug does a decent job with these action set-pieces, and they’re crucially not so slavishly devoted to the source material that they lack their own cinematic flair.

Vikander is ever the highlight, however, even in those sequences. She’s clearly done a lot of the stunt work herself, and the film and Lara both feel at their best in particular when she’s battling the hostile environment itself rather than fighting off waves of private military goons. The physical side of her performance is extremely impressive, but so too is when the script gives her a little more to chew on. These emotional moments are brief and few and far between, however, as the film quickly wants to barrel off towards its next action set piece or naff twist in the tale.

It’s a good job that Vikander does so well, since Lara’s the only real character of note in the movie. Daniel Wu puts in a decent turn as Lara’s buddy Lu Ren, but he doesn’t have much to do. Excellent character actor Walton Goggins plays antagonist Mathias Vogel, and though his performance is as reliably strong as you’d expect, in truth there isn’t much for him to latch onto for his performance. As such, Goggins feels wasted. This gives the film a bit of an antagonist problem, really, as Vogel doesn’t have any significant henchmen and the other big bad of the movie – Himiko herself – is dead, entombed. This lack of truly effective antagonists also probably contributes to why the film’s best moments are back in London and in the brief period when Lara is alone, trying to survive increasingly ludicrous calamities out in the wild.

Tomb Raider is perhaps too steeped in cinema to feel truly original when adapted directly to the big screen.

Tomb Raider is serviceable and enjoyable, but it’s all very familiar. This is perhaps the main problem with the source material: Tomb Raider’s 2013 reboot was an amalgamation of movie action set pieces and tropes that were acceptable and fun because it turned those classic and familiar cinema concepts into playable, thrilling experiences. When you translate them back into a movie once again you end up with something that often feels deeply derivative.

It’s an interesting problem, but one it seems many adaptations of more modern video games will now face: where the likes of Street Fighter, Hitman and DOOM were naff in part because of a lack of plot in the source, Tomb Raider is perhaps too steeped in cinema to feel truly original when adapted directly to the big screen. It’s a challenge I’m sure the upcoming Uncharted, Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid films will also battle with.

Tomb Raider motors along nicely for the most part, though. This is no video game movie disaster, and Square Enix will be deeply pleased to be associated with something not as niche as Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15 and the hilariously terrible Hitman: Agent 47. (As an aside, Tomb Raider’s producer has spoken of creating a ‘cinematic universe’ featuring Tomb Raider, Hitman, Just Cause, Thief and Deus Ex, with a Just Cause movie already in production.)

Tomb Raider is pretty serviceable, in fact – it’s just not much more than that, and will probably be easily forgotten. After a naff, obvious twist the film lurches into its third act and never really regains momentum thanks to characters lacking proper motivation, but by that point it barely matters: Vikander is magnetic in the role and the action is decent enough to carry it through, at least until eye roll inducing teases for a sequel.

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