Tomb Raider Film Review
Flickers of effort offer hope for this middling franchise reboot.
Even though American movie studios won the war against directors for creative control of the movies, there are still plenty of talented filmmakers out there trying to do the best with what they’re offered. Sometimes you get a winner, like the mostly great Black Panther (2018), sometimes you wind up with something like the Tom Cruise-laden The Mummy (2017), one of the decade’s worst big budget movies.
A lot of the time the tug of war between business and art results in a middling movie like Tomb Raider. Likely a greenlit movie pitch fast tracked to capitalise on the demand for more female protagonists in action films—the misfiring Atomic Blonde (2017), the artfully exploitative Red Sparrow (2018)—director Roar Uthaug’s videogame adaptation rebooted from a 2001 Angelina Jolie vehicle weighs heavily on both ends of the spectrum. At worst, it’s a series of action-adventure clichés slapped together to force feed us a new movie heroine in Alicia Vikander; at best it’s a step in the right direction for videogame adaptations and contains a few genuinely thrilling set pieces.
Right off the bat, the new Lara Croft (Vikander) is difficult to like. Struggling to make ends meet, she gets thrashed in kickboxing training match, is unable to pay the gym fee and steals an apple before rushing to her delivery job. She’s broke, but we quickly learn she stands to inherit a huge sum from her father’s (played by Dominic West) business. All she needs to do is sign papers admitting that, after 7 years, her father has perished overseas. Can you imagine meeting this by-all-appearances impoverished adrenaline junkie who refuses to fix her money problems because she can’t symbolically let go of her father? It’s like a uni student on a trust fund asking you to buy the next round—you’d buy it just to throw it in their face.
For 600 quid, Lara partakes in a bicycle race around the tight streets and busy cafes of London, giving us our first glimpse of the heroine in action. A can on the back of her bike trails green paint, while a group of riders try to snatch the fox tale flipping like a sail on her bike. Watching it, I kept thinking how this sequence should be more fun than it is. There are a few stylish moves and the odd entertaining crash, but Uthaug, whose 2015 The Wave impressed critics, shoots the whole thing like a tampon ad emphasising mobility in extreme circumstances. It all feels safe, cut too quickly to demonstrate stunt work and devoid of character. Vikander keeps looking back at her pursuers to smile and laugh the whole thing off—it’s trying too hard to show us Lara likes danger.
After finally going to the Croft building to sign the papers, Lara stumbles upon a puzzle piece her father left to her before he went overseas in search of the supernatural. She solves the puzzle seconds after picking it up and goes to Hong Kong to meet Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), drunk and in need of money, who agrees to captain her ship to the island of Yamatai. The two sort of flirt, teasing a romantic entanglement that never materialises (pretty refreshing given the stock standard two dimensional romances in most action flicks). The screenplay, written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alistair Siddons, is almost admirably comprehensive in its collection of clichés. If a character rejects a proposal, you know they’re only one quip away from being convinced. When we first meet the villain Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), he’s so menacing he can’t even use a can opener without giving away his macabre intentions. It’s a screenplay without any sense of style and a surefire sign this thing was greenlit long before anybody put any effort into writing it.
Even though she lacks the swaggering screen presence Jolie used to elevate the original adaptations’ schlocky B-movie feel, Vikander really is trying here. This Lara gets put through a meatgrinder of painful situations, tossed through trees, beaten up, and Vikander, even though she has a terrible yelp and squeal, genuinely seems like she’s getting hurt. There’s a fantastic sequence teased in the trailer, where Lara scales a trashed plane carcass teetering over the edge of a waterfall. The stupid screenplay takes a backseat to genuine tension as bits of the plane fall away and Lara swings and scrambles her way to safety. Recalling the games, this sequence is about the thrill of the danger and the protagonist’s mastery of acrobatics.
You’re probably not expecting much from a Tomb Raider reboot: the movie kind of sells itself short with that title. The thing is, there are certainly flickers of effort here, and when it comes to the movies, where there’s effort, there’s hope.