By Marty Mulrooney
Tomb Raider (directed by Roar Uthaug) is an action adventure film based on the 2013 video game reboot of the same name. As a result, it also serves as a reboot of the original Tomb Raider films starring Angelina Jolie, with Academy Award winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander offering a fresh cinematic take on the iconic character of Lara Croft.
Tomb Raider (2018) is well-intentioned at best and derivative at worst, but it certainly achieves what it sets out to do. The original Tomb Raider games were all about exotic locations, exciting action and a beautiful protagonist. Yet by the time Angelina Jolie picked up Lara Croft’s trademark pistols in 2001, the popularity of the games had somewhat declined. Nonetheless, the first Tomb Raider film adaptation did well enough for a sequel to be greenlit, which was released in 2003 to a muted response. A third film was apparently planned but never saw the light of day, with Angelina Jolie showing little interest in returning to the role.
Fast forward to 2018 and the video game landscape has changed considerably. The Tomb Raider games are now made by American developer Crystal Dynamics; the franchise was taken off British-based developer Core Design in 2004 following the disastrous performance of the video game Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, which has itself been blamed for the poor performance of the second Jolie film. Since then, Crystal Dynamics has taken the Tomb Raider video game series from strength to strength. Following a trilogy of ‘classic’ Tomb Raider games the series was rebooted in 2013 with the back-to-basics (aptly named) Tomb Raider, which was followed by a sequel in 2015, both of which were a critical and financial success.
Please excuse the short history lesson; it’s simply to give some much-needed context. The Tomb Raider of yesteryear has long since been replaced by a new take on the series – and the character of Lara Croft – that acts as an origin story and a new beginning all rolled into one. The focus is on a young woman who must overcome her doubts, fears and reservations to become the legendary tomb raider. She is no longer invincible; she feels pain both physically and emotionally. In short, she’s slightly less super and slightly more human.
That’s where an impressively fit Alicia Vikander steps in; she’s the flesh and blood embodiment of the modern Lara Croft in the rebooted games. There is less focus on cleavage and quipping and a conscious effort to add a sense of realism to the ridiculous. It doesn’t always work – in the games or this film adaptation – but the result can often prove highly enjoyable.
The film begins with Lara Croft scraping a living as a bike courier, refusing the considerable inheritance left to her following the disappearance and presumed death of her father. Of course, this is Lara Croft we’re talking about, so of course there’s an extended action sequence where she out-cycles and out-smarts all of her co-workers throughout the busy streets of London (far more enjoyable than it sounds) before being picked up by the police.
Vikander is at her most likeable as Lara during these opening moments. She doesn’t want anything handed to her in life and she’s a fighter, so it’s easy to get behind her. After her father’s business partner bails her out of jail, she decides it’s time to accept he’s dead. However, signing on the dotted line will have to wait; a simple puzzle box sets Lara on a path to her father’s hidden office. Inside, she finds a pre-recorded message revealing his secret research into the island of Yamatai and Queen Himiko.
He requests this research to be destroyed but instead, Lara uses it to charter a ship from a drunken sea captain called Lu Ren (played by the charismatic Daniel Wu, who doesn’t get nearly enough screen time) and follow in his footsteps. They journey to the Devil’s Sea in search of the island and of course find it, but not before a violent storm rips through their ship in the film’s first CGI-heavy action sequence of many.
Washing up on shore, she’s found by Mathias Vogel – played by a reliably wild-eyed Walton Goggins – who informs her there is no way to leave. She will be put to work as a prisoner while his ill-advised expedition tries to locate the tomb of Himiko. Mathias wasn’t kidding when he said there was no way to leave either; he’s been on the island for years. Without Goggins there would be no real narrative hook here. He hams it up with the very best of them while bringing a surprisingly emotional core to his character. There’s no mistaking him as the bad guy, but at least his motivations are understandable. He has daughters of his own and just wants to go home.
Sure, Tomb Raider is very on the nose and heavy-handed when it comes to its father/daughter symbolism – the audience quickly learns that Lara’s father, played by Dominic West, is an exceedingly posh good guy because he always calls her sprout – but at least it tries. It gives Lara a valid reason to literally follow her father to the ends of the earth, and it gives Vogel a reason for being such a murderous villain. The tomb raiding is almost secondary to this clash of personalities – although the tomb itself is delightfully dangerous and creepy – but it works and makes the film stand out from the crowd.
In the end, Tomb Raider is better than it has any right to be. The original films were content with being great big guilty pleasures – this reviewer certainly continues to enjoy them to this day. This new film comes as a genuine surprise because you won’t feel too guilty about enjoying it. Once Lara reaches the island the action is non-stop and brutal, but you’ll continue to care because the filmmakers have put the effort in to at least make the characters believable, even when the events unfolding around them aren’t.
This may be a film based on a video game, but it doesn’t always feel like a video game adaptation and that’s a good thing. The foundation has been laid here for a solid sequel if the studio allows it and Vikander is willing to return. In the meantime, this tightly directed little action adventure will do just fine.
7 OUT OF 10