Tomb Raider is technically one of the better video game adaptations Hollywood has managed to crank out. Still, while it may be better, it is by far the least interesting. For all the people who have decried that video game adaptations are not faithful enough to the source material, behold what you have sown.
The only thing Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider has going for it is Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander). Vikander’s Lara Croft is a brash, stubborn, resourceful character. The type of character that raises an audience’s hopes and expectations in an adventure movie. Vikander is an Academy Award winning actress, so the fact that her Lara Croft is believable and complex comes as no surprise.
What does come as a surprise is that in addition to being a great actress, Vikander, is also a movie star. No telling what fun she might have had, or us for that matter, in a movie not so self serious and mundane. Preposterous is the bread and butter of the adventure genre, and of the video games as well. But if done wrong, it can be a deathly bore.
Uthaug and his writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons give us an origin story for a character that doesn’t need one. The irony is they prove so adept in setting up her character in just a few scenes. In the beginning we’re shown Lara boxing at the gym and losing. We see her at her job as a bike messenger. Lara enters a competition to out-pedal a mob of cyclists while a paint can leaves a trail of green paint to follow her.
In ten minutes they have done a wonderful job of showing us Lara Croft, both her flaws and her abilities. Then the plot starts to rear its ugly laborious head and the movie all but implodes upon itself. After getting arrested because of the cycling adventure, she is bailed out of jail by Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas). It appears Lara has never claimed her inheritance left to her by her father Richard Croft (Dominic West) because she doesn’t believe he’s dead.
Lara is ‘chic poor’. She’s poor enough she can’t make bail, but she’s not poor enough to where she can’t afford a gorgeous loft overlooking the London skyline.
Ana convinces Lara it is time sign the papers and move on with her life. Lara agrees and goes with Ana to sign the will. The executor of the estate, Mr. Yaffe (Derek Jacobi), is delighted to finally get all this out of the way. So delighted in fact he prematurely gives Lara a puzzle box meant to be given to her after she signs the will.
Tomb Raider is filled with puzzles. Which as I understand it, so is the game. But Uthang and his writers never let us in on the fun. As Lara solves the puzzle box ,she informs Mr. Yaffe and Ana that it’s a Japanese puzzle box and that her father left them around the house all the time. Good for Lara. It’s nice pat little piece of writing but ultimately we’re left twiddling our thumbs while Lara has all the fun.
Later on in the movie she’s forced to solve yet another puzzle to open up the tomb belonging to a Japanese Empress. We see her jump from gear to gear turning them ever so slightly, reading the symbols, making conclusions. Except we never see the symbols nor does she ever tell us what she’s doing. Not to mention after she solves the puzzle the door to the tomb crumbles into a pile of debris, naturally. Inside the tomb a character intones, “This wasn’t built to keep people out. It was built to keep people in.” Not with that door buddy.
I don’t play video games but I’m not a complete hermit. I’ve seen youtube videos and discussions about the Tomb Raider games. While watching the movie, I noticed shot for shot scenes pulled directly from the game. Cut scenes on your PC or television are one thing. It’s quite another to see them on the big screen. The image is nice and the attention to the source material admirable, but without any kind of cinematic drama it is meaningless.
Films aren’t video games and video games aren’t films. They may overlap from time to time and share many of the same attributes. But the functionality of how they tell a story is different. For most of Tomb Raider, I felt as if I was waiting my turn to play, and since the movie feels interminable I was never invested in the action, much less the character or the story.
The story by the way you can pretty much call from the lobby. Lara goes off, without signing the will, in search of her father. The puzzle box had a key. The key goes to a letter in her mother’s name in the family’s crypt. Inside the crypt is a secret office full of artifacts from Richard’s secret life. She finds a video of her father to be found in case he ever disappears. And the green grass grows all around, all around, the green grass grows all around.
Richard tells Lara to burn everything and don’t go looking for him. Richard fears his research falling into the wrong hands. Of course she takes everything and goes looking for him. Surprise! It falls into the wrong hands.
Of course not before she meets Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who pilots the ship that gets her to the island in the middle of the Devil’s Sea. Lu”s father went missing the same time Lara’s dad did. Wouldn’t you know it, Lu’s dad was hired by Lara’s dad to sail him to the same island. What are the odds one or both of the fathers are still alive on the island?
I’ll do you one better. What are the odds that when they reach the island, the ‘wrong hands’ have set up camp and are desperately trying to find the tomb? They are group called Trinity. Trinity, I suspect, have much more than three of anything involved in their organization. The evil super secret organization kidnap Lara and Lu. The Trinity team on the is led by a man beautifully named Matthias Vogel (Walter Goggins). Trinity is searching the island for the tomb and thanks to Richard’s maps and notes, now have the location.
Uthaug and his cinematographer George Richmond give Tomb Raider a dull sort of slickness to it. At odd times they even switch to a first person point of view. First person video games are not uncommon, but from what I understand the Tomb Raider games don’t have these types of shots. Now if a dummy like me knows that then surely the fans will be just as confused or irked.
The special effects are too good. They exist in that limbo where you can tell what is real and what is not but not because of their cheapness. Throughout most of the last half of the movie we see them setting off explosions digging for the tomb. We can tell clearly that both the explosion and the rocks are computer generated. Tomb Raider is such a sad sack of an adventure yarn it can’t even blow up rocks convincingly!
There are some twists, more fumbles than twists, that don’t come as a shock to anyone who’s either played a video game or seen a movie. The only fun to be found in Tomb Raider is Nick Frost as Max, a pawnbroker, and his wife Pamela played by Jamie Winstone. Somehow these two comedic relief characters are the most believable people in the entire movie. I would have gladly sat through an entire movie concerning itself with Lara selling things to Max and Pamela.
Sadly, Uthaug finds a way to soil even that bit of joy. At the end, Max and Pamela sell Lara some guns, and the scene is so tonally out of place I thought it had to have been an outtake. I’m still not entirely convinced it’s not an outtake.
Super Mario Brothers may be bonkers terrible, but it is so of its own self that it almost transcends its awfulness. Mortal Kombat remains one of the best video game movies ever made because of its honesty and sheer camp. Tomb Raider is unremarkable with only it’s lead actress to make it stand out. Tomb Raider is technically better than its predecessors in it’s basic story construction and visually cohesive, but it has no personality. It lays there on the screen as spectacle after spectacle unfurl before our eyes.
Tomb Raider wastes a terrifically talented cast by having them do nothing you can’t do on a controller. As popcorn movies go it’s stale. As video games adaptations go it’s better than the worst of them but nowhere near as fun.