Video game movies have never been the best cinema has to offer. In fact, it seems using video games in general as a theme of a film works much better than trying to capture the magic of a specific game on the big screen, but that hasn’t stopped studios from trying to make it work. That’s probably why we get the second attempt at a franchise based on the famed “Tomb Raider” games. After the first two films made a career for Angelina Jolie and became examples of early 2000s nostalgia, the new “Tomb Raider” movie takes a more grounded a serious approach to the story with an A-list actress and an unproven but ambitious director to bring it to life. So, is “Tomb Raider” an improvement or is it just another bad video game movie worth skipping? Here is my review of “Tomb Raider”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Tomb Raider” is based on the 2013 video game reboot of the legendary game series and depicts the origin of Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander). Seven years after Croft’s father went missing in search of the resting place of an ancient Japanese queen named Himiko Lara is a reckless woman who trains in fighting and utilizes her carefree personality and talents to earn money in different ways. Refusing to accept her father’s death, Lara is risking the sale of his estate and business entities but when she is finally ready to sign his death certificate she comes across a puzzle that leads her to her father’s secret hideout and his research on Himiko. Despite being instructed to destroy her father’s research (by a prerecorded message her father left) Lara follows clues to a hidden island where she encounters archaeologist Mathia Vogel (Walton Goggins) who is seeking to find Himiko himself for the benefit of a secret organization known as Trinity. Lara finds herself in the position to finish what her father started and prevent Trinity from getting their hands on the mythical queen or entering her tomb, but as her first mission as a tomb raider progresses she must also come to grips with who she wants to be in her life and how mythology and reality intertwine.
“Tomb Raider” is mostly about two people, Lara Croft and her opponent Mathias Vogel with some smaller characters spread about to add to the cast. Alivia Vikander plays Croft and to be honest her talents are very much above this film and she very much helps make “Tomb Raider” watchable. While some would argue that Angelina Jolie’s performances were very good and highlights of the original two films, Vikander’s performance in my opinion is even better. While she doesn’t capture everything that makes Lara Croft…well Lara Croft she captures enough and makes the famed heroine her own. Her looks and attitude are much more conservative and realistic than the over-the-top presentations of both body and personality in the first movies. Vikander takes a mediocre script and story and lifts it higher than it should have ever been by giving us a spot-on depiction of a young explorer to finds herself embroiled in a conspiracy she much now prevent. Vikander is charismatic and charming and while she gives in to the urge to embrace some more clichéd badass moments, like a few to many head nods towards her partners on the island to get the job done, it’s still a decent performance done by an actress who probably didn’t really need this role to remain relevant.
There are really few other characters that get enough screen time to truly comment on their actors but one person who does share a lot of time with Vikander is Walton Goggins who portrays Trinity-hired archaeologist Mathias Vogel, a man seeking out Himiko and yearning to return to his family after finding the treasure. This is not the best villain in the world designed with clichés in mind, but Goggins does his best. He’s not a bland villain, he’s just forgettable although Goggins does drive home some of the frustration and layers of Vogel’s personality for us to sink our teeth into. He makes for an interesting bad guy who seems to have his heart in the right place, but his mind in the wrong place. The problem is Goggins doesn’t add enough to the role to make Vogel any more badass than his henchmen. In fact, if it weren’t for the purposefully designed facial hair and white attire he’d probably fit right in as one of his own gunmen. He’s an okay villain for this kind of movie to set up the lore of a potential franchise, but when looking at this film on its own Goggins does nothing to make Vogel anything more than a carbon copy of every other adventure movie bad guy we’ve seen before.
Some have criticized the depiction of Lara Croft as a delicate and easily damaged woman who gets her butt kicked for most of the film. While that’s not entirely true I will admit that Croft is not the strong, confident person she was in the Angelina Jolie movies, well not for most of the movie anyway, but that’s a good thing in this case. This Lara is one who has gone years without her father figure in her life and thus lives a reckless existence without much motivation to be as great as she could be. While I wasn’t completely on board with the character’s depiction, I did enjoy seeing a Croft who was just starting to understand her potential. As the film progresses she goes from a reckless cynic to a confident, able, level headed yet somewhat still childish adventurer in an evolution that promises growth in future films. I saw something in this presentation of the character that others seemed to believe the film lacked, and that was a certain amount of depth and credibility for out heroine that fit right in with an origin tale about how she was able to find that confidence to become the tomb raider. I liked that, and Vikander made it believable. It doesn’t work on all levels, but it works enough.
“Tomb Raider” offers plenty of action and some very cool scenes for fans of the games to sink their teeth into. Many game-to-screen scenes are included to give fanboys and fangirls something to enjoy and the action set pieces are pretty cool to look at as well. Even when we know Lara Croft will make it out, because she’s the hero you know she’s going to survive, it’s still fun to see how she gets out of her precarious situations. In a way “Tomb Raider” captures some of the same magic that the “Indiana Jones” films did back in the day, tapping in to viewers sense of wonder and suspension of disbelief. Director Roar Uthang, in his first English film, did a pretty good job presenting different settings, from the tomb to the crashed airplane, that made me personally feel like I was right there in the middle of the digital world of the games. Combine this with decent costume design and weapon choices for Croft, some actually very cool puzzles she has to solve and the setting on a deserted island that also seemed to fit the style of the newer Playstation games the film was based on and you have a movie that, to me at least, respects it source material even if it doesn’t quite understand how to emulate the “Tomb Raider” games as a whole.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
The script and the screenplay for starters are subpar with this film and I admit they could have been a lot worse but I still wasn’t impressed. We do see Lara Croft utilizing her attitude and sexuality at the beginning of the movie, but as the film progresses the story kind of dries up quick. Croft is quickly devolved into a more innocent and helpless woman trying to discover who she is and once we reach the island it’s like a totally different story than the first act with all the soul and spunk wasted on minuscule character-defining scenes in the first 30 minutes. The overall story gets a bit boring a predictable. Lara goes through some fun adventurous roadblocks, a predictable twist gives her the inspiration she needs to fight back and then she ends up in the tomb having to help her enemy in order to accomplish her mission. That might seem like a spoiler but come on you know that’s what happens and that’s my point. There’s little creativity involved and what little creativity is worked in doesn’t really shine. However, I do have to say the twist involving the reality of Himiko is pretty neat but even then, that revelation feels rushed, out of left field and, frankly, poorly thought out leaving plot holes galore as to how this twist can even work especially if you know basic science and the movie essentially presents itself as based more on the real world that the legends of old. That might sound confusing, but watch it and you’ll see what I mean.
Despite some great aspects of the film, “Tomb Raider” still misses the mark in capturing everything that the game series stands for. Yes, there’s adventure and character growth and mysteries and cool puzzles, but the video games did it so much better because of a lack of limitation on time and an incredible approach to pacing and storytelling that the makers of this movie just can’t match. Everything we love about the games might be here to some extent, but there’s not enough of it to make them count. It’s like the filmmakers simply took ideas from the video games, wrote them in a list and then made sure they referenced each one in some way in the story without giving full thought as to how any of it makes sense or how to respect these elements properly. True there’s a lot to enjoy and at times this movie even feels like the games that inspired it, but more times than not it misses chances to go all in with one or two concepts in order to fit in a few more that feel forced or out of place as a result. It tries too hard to establish too much too quickly instead of staying on course and committing to one idea. For as much fun as this movie can be, it’s also frustrating and lacks enough imagination and a good enough execution to truly capitalize on all the great elements it tries to carry over from the games.
“Tomb Raider” is a step in the right direction for video game adaptations, but in many ways, it also shows how this genre is flawed. Even when it tries to respect the games it only proves that video games themselves are more exciting and engaging stories that can take many elements and capitalize on them properly. A two-hour movie just can’t capture that same magic and as hard as “Tomb Raider” tries it just can’t truly match the greatness of the game franchise. There are fun moments that make this film feel like it could have been the greatest adventure movie of its kind since the “Indiana Jones” films in better hands, but they’re only glimpses of something better that don’t make for an overall quality story. Still, I did enjoy “Tomb Raider” to a certain extent. The depiction of a young, still maturing Lara Croft was better than I expected, the action set pieces were fun to see, the puzzle were entertaining to watch as limited as they were and it contained a pretty neat twist at the end, but it’s all contained in a messy, poorly paced, poorly written package that does nothing creative or brilliant with the story. Still, I have to say “Tomb Raider” is among the better video game movies out there and is a lot more watchable and acceptable than either of the previous movies combined in my humble opinion.