Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Wu, Kirsten Scott Thomas, Nick Frost
Written by: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons (screenplay), Evan Daugherty, Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story)
Directed by: Roar Uthaug
Studio: Warner Bros.
Run Time: 1h 58min
Video games remain largely uncrackable in the movie world. You’d think someone somewhere would figure it out, but whatever spark of magic that lies in gaming can’t readily move to the big screen. There have been ambitious failures, embarrassing failures, modest failures and epic failures, but we have yet to look on any movie based on a video game and say, “oh yeah, they nailed it.”
Tomb Raider stands out in part because it rises higher than most other video game adaptations. Its characters exhibit definable personalities, its story arc moves in a logical direction, and in Alicia Vikander, it finds the ideal actress to play one of the medium’s iconic characters. Unfortunately, it can’t go much further than that. As a video game movie, Tomb Raider constitutes a big step forward: better developed and richer than the earlier incarnations of the property starring Angelina Jolie. But it still misses that vital spark: that bit of energy that made the Tomb Raider games so beloved, and that would have made this a good movie in its own right instead of a noble effort that can’t quite reach the finish line.
Indeed, it can be shocking boring at times, with a gritty, pseudo-realistic approach to the material that doesn’t necessarily serve it well. We first meet Vikander’s Lara as a down-on-her-luck bike messenger. Her father (Dominic West) vanished seven years earlier, but she refuses to give up hope… to the point of denying her vast inheritance because claiming it means declaring him dead. But then comes the secret clues and the puzzle boxes and the hidden room full of maps in the family estate, and we’re off to a forbidden island to see if dear old dad needs a hand with that Unholy Crypt thing.
The daddy issues notion exemplifies the film’s overall mixed bag. It gives Lara some impetus as a character, as well as a vulnerability that enhances our rooting interest in her, but it tends to limit how far she can develop. She’s ultimately left as just another girl with daddy issues, and while the film takes pains to show how she grows from that point, it still feels like dramatic shorthand instead of genuinely compelling storytelling.
On the other hand, Vikander has the goods. Her Lara is tough, gritty, smart and up for the challenge before her, and the prospect of more Tomb Raider movies with her in the lead is far from unwelcome. The movie allows her to be strong while still throwing credible threats at her, something the Jolie films could never manage. The best parts plant us firmly in her corner with a rooting interest in seeing whether she makes it or not. Watching the actress rise to that challenge is a singular joy.
Would that the rest of the film could match it. Tomb Raider works very hard to sell us on this leaner, bloodier Lara, but it just leaves too much on the table. Walton Goggins makes a suitably greasy villain, but he lacks the material to make his character more than a cardboard cutout. The same holds true for Daniel Wu as Lara’s sidekick-by-proxy: a great presence who needed more to do. And for all the touting of the 2013 video game as the source for this one, it completely eliminates Lara’s friend Sam: a move that may not make it any friends among the purists.
More importantly, the action scenes struggle for any pop. The middle section sags terribly and while the climax carries a certain frenetic energy, it still feels like a second-act placeholder instead of the go-for-broke bonkers-fest the movie demands. Some of that comes from its central mystery, involving an ancient Japanese queen and a supposed curse for those who find her tomb. There’s a nifty twist in there, but it doesn’t grab us the way the movie really wants, and it can’t find the right balance of supernatural awe and plausible realism to make the concept work.
Critics of the character have derided her as a sexist knock-off of Indiana Jones, a fact that Tomb Raider seems acutely aware of. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make some significant steps forward on that front. Vikander is their white knight, and there’s enough material backing her up to make future installments in the franchise a worthwhile prospect. But they’re going to need to do more than this one does to realize that potential, and while this Tomb Raider has outfitted itself for the 21st Century, it still doesn’t go nearly as far as it should. The pieces are there. They just need better assembly. I’ve doubt we’ve seen the last of the redoubtable Ms. Croft, so the day may come when they get put together at last. For now, that’s the best we can hope for.