It’s not like Alicia Vikander has been absent since her 2016 Oscar win for The Danish Girl, and yet Tomb Raider feels like more of a return for Vikander than it does for video game heroine Lara Croft. Maybe that’s because Croft has already been reinvented in the digital space – in a 2013 title that provides the basis for the character in this film – or that, like many video game characters, Croft still isn’t really at home on the big screen.
Here we are regardless, fifteen years since Angelina Jolie last strapped on a pair of pistols to play one of the few – maybe the only? – female video game characters recognizable to an audience that doesn’t play games. There’s an intellectual property to be mined, after all.
Never let it be said that Vikander isn’t up to a challenge. Tomb Raider exploits her ability to injects a boundless energy into the Croft persona as she sweats through jungle chases, bike races, and dock brawls with a compulsively watchable level of effort. Vikander doesn’t make this all look easy. Rather, like that guy in those movies that the Tomb Raider franchise relies upon for inspiration, it’s just difficult enough that success feels like an accomplishment.
This isn’t a posh Lara Croft. She lives cheap to avoid collecting her family fortune, which would require accepting that her long-absent father is dead. Lara works making deliveries, biking through London with an Xtreme Sports recklessness that feels more of the era of the original filmed adaptation than this one. Eventually she has to face the truth about her departed dad – only to find a breadcrumb that leads her to the same trail from which he disappeared years earlier.
As Lara uncovers secrets about her father – some buried underground, others bound in a journal – the plot has more than a whiff of familiarity. Call it Lara Croft and the Last Crusade. And that’s even before she gets to the temple full of intricately-constructed traps.
There are worse ideas than softly remaking the third Indiana Jones movie, and since this entire franchise cribs from Raiders of the Lost Ark consistently enough to feel like a rewritten Indy Wikipedia entry – it’s right there in the title – that’s also in keeping with expectations.
Throw in a few capable co-stars – Dominic West as the elder Croft, Daniel Wu as a helpful sidekick who is as astonishingly good-looking as he is paper-thin, and Walton Goggins, giving a villainous turn so recognizably idiosyncratic it could make “Goggins” into a verb – and Tomb Raider hums along at comfortable speed.
And yet it never actually gets good. Director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) and his team go for “realism” as often as possible, which typically means an action movie sort of realism with a 5:1 ratio of grunts to jokes. But there’s no way to apply that formula to a sequence where Lara escapes being pulped after an impossible parachute landing.
More than once, action sequences shift into video game mode to push Vikander through elaborate obstacle courses that do at least approximate gameplay – without that crucial interactive element that makes games so addictive. A long sequence on a downed plane, which requires Croft to traverse a huge wing to an empty fuselage which becomes a vertical tower of terror, is both a decent example of game-to-film conversion, and a jarring tonal break.
It’s like the movie shifts into a different reality for the action sequences. And since much of the action is relentlessly and often ruthlessly edited, in modern studio style, we can’t even properly take in all the effort Vikander, the rest of the cast, and the stunt team are putting forth.
Then again, Tomb Raider is a fragile narrative house of cards to begin with. The trip from London to a remote island almost makes a sort of logistical sense as characters convey the need to rush from points A to B to C. Pause to ask a few obvious questions and it starts to feel like dream logic. The grunty, superficially ruthless realism prized by the filmmakers needs something with more substance, a sturdy frame of 2x4s rather than a wisp of paper and a couple of missing dads.
And yet the movie can always come back to Vikander, giving her all, projecting competence even when Lara is ill-advisedly impulsive or flat-out stupid. It’s a neat trick, and proves how difficult it is to write and perform that Indiana Jones-type character who succeeds almost in spite of themselves. The writing isn’t up to code here, but at least we’ve got a star who’s game.
Mild SPOILERS to follow:
About those pistols. When it comes to game fidelity this movie prizes the rebooted video game version of Lara Croft. That means the shorts, the triangular physique, and the pistols are in the past. Mostly. There’s one bit where Lara does connect with the guns of Croft v.1, and it is a grossly grinning moment that veers away from the character created in the rest of the film, and plays particularly poorly in the context of the current conversation about guns. “Bury the past” is advice nearly everyone in Tomb Raider could heed, some more pointedly than others.