Review: “Tomb Raider”

3 out of 5 stars.

With “Tomb Raider,” director Roar Uthaug tries to do something that no other film based on a video game has managed to do: imbue the story and characters with some humanity extending beyond the action scenes.  By giving the film a more serious and gritty tone—and with an outstanding leading lady in Alicia Vikander—Uthaug comes close to succeeding, but a dull story makes this reboot rather forgettable.

Unlike the cartoonish “Tomb Raider” movies starring Angelina Jolie, which looked and felt too much like a video game to fully succeed as films, this movie is based on the 2013 “Tomb Raider” game and its sequel, which explores the disappearance of Lara Croft’s father.  Seven years ago, Lara’s father Richard (Dominic West) disappeared while on a mysterious trip.  Now a young woman (played by Vikander), Lara lives in London alone and with little purpose.  She works as a bike courier, having never gone to college, takes a boxing class that she isn’t especially great at, and struggles to make ends meet.  Her father’s company and a large inheritance are waiting for her if she will sign some documents officially declaring him dead, but Lara holds on to the belief that he is still alive somewhere in the world.  When she finally decides to sign the papers, she finds a puzzle that leads to a clue to what her father was up too—and in turn, where his adventure might have lead him to.  Lara, believing her father to have gone to an island somewhere in the Pacific in search of a mythical tomb, travels to Hong Kong, where she enlists the owner of a boat, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her there.  But what she finds is even more than she bargained for.

Tomb Raider 2
Lara (Alicia Vikander) tomb-raiding

The “tomb raiding” that does finally take place in the film’s third act revolves around the legend of Himiko, a queen who had power over life and death and could kill people by simply touching them.  As a result, her people buried her on a remote island where she could no longer harm anyone, so naturally, finding and opening her tomb would be bad.  But that does not become the film’s focus until the climax.  Lara’s reason for going on this journey is to find her dad, not what he was searching for, and as a result, everything else falls by the wayside (despite a prologue at the beginning of the film explaining the legend, I actually entirely forgot about it for a decent chunk of the film).  It’s in this way that this “Tomb Raider” is more of a human story, with flashbacks depicting their close father/daughter relationship prior to Richard’s disappearance.

A lot of that humanity is also contributed by Vikander and her performance.  Outside of her relationship with her father, we actually don’t get a lot of backstory on Lara.  We don’t know a lot about her skills or her interests, although it’s to be assumed that, if any sequels are in the works, she will be more engaged with her father’s line of work now that the mystery in this film has been solved.  But she’s clearly intelligent, resourceful, and determined, and carries herself through this film not as someone who’s particularly keen on an adventure, but someone who has something she needs to do, and if she has to jump from a ship about to crash in the ocean, or escape from an airplane that crashed atop a very large waterfall to get to where she needs to go, then so be it.  Vikander lends a lot of believable emotion to her character—maybe too much believability for a film that is otherwise entirely unrealistic, but this is an origin story, and seeing Lara, for example, struggle with her first kill gives the story some more weight.  She far outperforms her costars; West is quite good as her father and Wu has good chemistry in his scenes with Lara, but Walton Goggins as Vogel, the cruel man in charge of the excavation of the tomb, is a rather forgettable villain (although for a villain, you can’t help but sympathize with his desire to open the tomb so he can go home to his family).

Unfortunately, the story wavers too much between the search for Lara’s father and the more mystical, Indiana Jones style investigation of the tomb and the myth surrounding it to fully work—almost like two entirely different movies are happening at the same time.  It’s consistently entertaining, even if it doesn’t make much sense, but it is also takes itself too seriously.  The script is almost entirely devoid of humor until an after-credits scene that gives a wink and a nod to Lara becoming the fully realized heroine of the video game franchise.

If there are sequels to “Tomb Raider”—which, if the film’s open-ended conclusion is any indication, the filmmakers fully intend to turn this into a franchise—hopefully there will be more, you know, tomb raiding, along with a bit more fun action that we only got glimpses of here.  As an origin story that sets up the character and her universe, this film is perfectly fine, but in terms of video game films, that’s not saying much.  We’re close to being on the right track here, but an intriguing heroine like Lara Croft deserves better.

Runtime: 118 minutes. Rated PG-13.

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