The Tomb Raider franchise has been incredibly successful ever since its inception in 1996, selling 63 million copies worldwide. Lara Croft has also been one of gaming’s most popular protagonists, with her toughness and attractive charisma making her an easy sell. There was an increase in popularity when the franchise had a reboot in 2013, with the self-titled Tomb Raider being a gritty and hard-edged take on the lead character, stranding her on an island and making her a survivalist. This newest film tries to follow suit from the reboot, including a closely related story, many of the same characters and a similar Lara. The result of this makes Tomb Raider a faithful adaptation, though as its own film, it leaves little impact.
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a down on her luck woman who lives in London. One day, she finds out about an inheritance left by her missing/presumed dead father (Dominic West), which leads to her discovery that he was on a hunt for the tomb of Himeko, the goddess of death. She goes to the island where he went missing with drunken sailor Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), but soon finds herself going up against mercenary Mattias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who is also after the tomb. She is forced to fight for her survival and find the tomb without letting Vogel get to it first.
The first 20 minutes that explore Lara’s exploits give you an idea as to what they are aiming for with this iteration of the character. A young woman who is estranged from her family, forced to take responsibility for her heritage, Lara starts out of her depth but becomes a stronger person through being put in peril. This film is supposed to be an origin story, so making her this way is understandable. But having her be so inexperienced causes her to feel less like a proactive lead and more like somebody who just so happens to survive situations. Whilst she does become more competent during the story, her character lacks a true sense of strength, so this version of Lara Croft will probably not be a popular incarnation.
The story, on the other hand, has some momentum and stakes, which is helped by the investigation and discovery plotline, the survival and action sequences, and the tomb exploring, which are all lively. The father-daughter angle also starts out saccharine but moves into being genuinely touching and emotional, and this adds heart to a film that could have been completely mindless.
But it struggles to stand out among its peers in the action-adventure genre, like Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Those films had more substance and felt less routine than this one, and it is not helped by how predictable a lot of the plot is. And the mystery story also means that there are a ton of flashbacks and expository voiceovers, which get old after they happen repeatedly, and fail to make the plot feel important. But the ending is the worst part. It is an embarrassingly ill-advised, on-the-nose sequel hook that prevents this story from standing on its own, as it hijacks what should be a perfectly fine wrap-up and makes the film prior feel like a foot-note in a larger story.
The actors are decent. Alicia Vikander does well, as she sells the inexperience of this character, as well as the emotion, though as an action hero she does not really convince. Walton Goggins is perfectly suited for this villain role, and though he is not particularly deep or menacing, he does add charisma and likeability to his straight faced bad guy. Daniel Wu is fine, but he is not distinct enough or developed enough to stand out. The actor who makes the most impression is Dominic West, who adds gravitas and credibility to his character, and although he is mostly just seen in flashbacks, he has a strong presence that carries the backstory well.
The direction is sometimes impressive, but also occasionally poor. Director Roar Uthaug attempts to make his film different from other video game movies by aiming for realism over spectacle, and him and cinematographer George Richmond sometimes handle the action scenes with a capable eye. The sections where his directing is competent includes a scene that involves sneaking around a camp, a river escape, and a dark, muddy fight that leaves Lara gasping and crying. Some of these moments had an impact that other scenes did not match, and they show signs of what a better film could have done with this material.
However, other action scenes are not up to par, especially early on. The opening MMA fight is way too quick and choppy, a boat crash becomes extremely disorientating through flashy lightning that makes the scene hard to watch, and even the climax is underwhelming, as it feels overlong and takes place in a tomb environment that is not visually interesting or particularly comprehensible due to the dark lighting.
Tomb Raider lacks anything unique or good enough to make it a worthwhile experience, though fans of the games or of similar films may have fun. It is a step up from the last few video game movies, but it does not transcend the genre’s weaknesses, being too flawed to leave an impact. Hopefully Alicia Vikander gets another chance at this role because she deserves more than this flick gives her.