Tomb Raider is the latest attempt at video game adaptation, serving as an updated version following the 2013 rebooted video game and has very little to do with the original Angelina Jolie films (Cradle of Life and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider). This latest version stars Academy Award Winner Alicia Vikander as the famous female action hero and this is an interesting movie because we still have yet to have a good video game movie. The closest to a good video game movie was Duncan Jones’s Warcraft (which did fall prey to miscast actors and unfocused narrative). However after watching this movie, Tomb Raider now holds that title of best video game movie adaptation and is, dare I say, the first solid video game movie ever made.
Granted the bar of a video game to movie adaptation isn’t high and the task has proven more difficult than adapting novels, comics or even musicals. Some have argued that video games can’t be adapted into movies but I disagree. As games become more narratively complex and treated with more respect as an art form, the greater chance that these games will translate into great movies. A good story is a good story and video games have good stories that can exist in other mediums. This latest version of Tomb Raider isn’t a great movie or even very memorable but it is a sign that when the material is treated with an earnest sensibility we start to see the seeds of something that could be great.
Tomb Raider largely takes its cues from the acclaimed rebooted game (of the same name) that attempted to ground Lara Croft a with a larger emphasis on character and story. The Angelina Jolie films attempted to replicate the over the top silly nature of the early Lara Croft video games. As a gamer, I wasn’t as interested in that iteration of the game series and never became a big fan. However, when the series got more serious and more cinematic I became a much bigger fan of the games. This adaptation of Tomb Raider is also more grounded and earnest which appealed to more of my own sensibilities (which I admit is my own bias).
This is essentially Lara Croft Begins. The character of Croft has not formed into the confident action hero we are used to seeing. Lara Croft lives her days’ pay check to pay check as she refuses to take on the huge fortune that she is supposed to be inheriting after her father’s death. However, after a clue is given to her where her late father may have disappeared too, seven years earlier, Croft sets off on an adventure with a companion named Lu (Daniel Wu) to a small island. There they discover a legendary secret that her father attempted to keep secret. Now Croft has to fight to keep an organization from obtaining the location of a tomb.
The movie is very focused on Lara Croft as a character, what drives her and motivates her. We get glimpses into Croft’s relationship with her father, her skill set, and what her internal conflict is. She can’t let go of her father and continuously refuses to accept that he is dead. At the center of that character is a terrific performance by Alicia Vikander.
Vikander is perfect for this role. She is strong and tough but has an emotional vulnerability to her that is irresistible. I really felt for her whenever she found herself in a dangerous situation. She is physically imposing and you can believe she has the strength to fight men much bigger than she is. The film is also wise to not make invincible. This is her beginnings and she hasn’t been truly tested in a fight yet and so she gets injured and beaten up. Vikander brings a sort of John McClane quality to her character. She isn’t always the best fighter out there but she always finds clever ways to overcome her obstacles and never gives up which makes the character so much more endearing than other action heroes.
Quite often movies these days exceed and go beyond their own story’s capabilities with unnecessary large scale third act scenes of massive destruction. Tomb Raider isn’t especially ambitious but I really respect that the movie didn’t try to be something it wasn’t. It stayed in its own lane with the biggest set pieces surrounding an airplane breaking apart on the edge of a waterfall and a well-executed shipwreck sequence. The movie didn’t feel the need to laughably try to make the scale bigger than it had to be. A city doesn’t have to blow up for a movie to be exciting.
The rest of the action scenes are either gun battles or hand to hand fights which are well done and showcases the action. This isn’t to say the movie couldn’t have done more to stand out by indulging in a few moments or getting a little more creative with the action setups. That’s the thing Tomb Raider seems to be only be held back by itself. It goes through the motions a bit doesn’t seem to have a lot of fun with its tomb raiding puzzles (the movie is literally called Tomb Raider, there should be some fun puzzles to solve). In this regard Tomb Raider does feel a tad too generic to rank up with some of the best action movies of the best few years.
One element that I found to be especially lacking is Tomb Raider’s villain, played by Walter Goggins as Mathias Vogel. Goggins isn’t bad in the movie but his character feels shallow and lacks any sort of menace. When Lara and Mathias start going toe to toe I should feel on the edge of my seat wanting Lara to crush the villain but his character lacks a strong conflict with Lara so while I was rooting for Lara I didn’t find myself getting completely enthralled by the conflict. A stronger villain could have been the shot in the arm the movie needed to rise above the feeling of being collective.
Tomb Raider isn’t the Superman: The Movie of video game movies but it is a good step in the right direction. The movie largely succeeds with its emphasis on its title character, Vikander’s performance, and its fun action sequences. Tomb Raider isn’t especially outstanding in many of its strengths and could have benefited from a little elevation in its story and villain. Still, Tomb Raider was entertaining and I would like to see more from the character (this movie clearly sets up sequels). At a matinee price, I think Tomb Raider is a fine watch and does serve as an entertaining excursion to the movies. This does get me hopeful for the future of video game movies; maybe some filmmakers are beginning to understand how to adapt them.