Video game movies are impossible to pull off – that’s the common refrain, at least. To be fair, the last quarter century hasn’t given much room to think otherwise: from Super Mario Bros. to the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies, all the way to Assassin’s Creed, it’s just difficult to translate the rhythms and mechanics of a video game to the intricate, character-driven dynamics of cinema. That Norwegian director Roar Uthaug’s gritty, grounded reboot of Tomb Raider comes closest to breaking that streak is something of a minor miracle, even if it doesn’t completely break free of all the video-game clichés.
A far cry from the hyper-stylized globe-trotting action of the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films of the mid-aughts, this version is a loose adaptation of the 2013 game-series reboot, featuring a young Lara at the beginning of her tomb-raiding career. The daughter of long-missing aristocratic adventurer Richard Croft (Dominic West), Lara discovers a series of clues that lead to her father’s last great quest: the tomb of Himiko, a fabled Japanese Queen of Death whose remains lie on a mysterious island called Yamatai.
Driven to finish Richard’s quest, Lara heads to the island, where she finds booby traps, deadly puzzles, and a rival expedition headed by the psychopathic Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a toadie for the ominous-sounding Order of Trinity. Together with a rebellious boat captain (Daniel Wu) and a mysterious figure from her past, Lara finds herself in the unenviable position of trying to get to Himiko’s tomb first.
In both the 2013 game reboot and the new film, Lara Croft has been upgraded from an impossible sex symbol to a lithe, agile fighter – all projected strength and washboard abs. Following the casting formula of “recent Best Supporting Actress winner” (Jolie had just won for Girl, Interrupted before starring in the first one), Croft is played by Danish Girl winner Alicia Vikander, her tightly coiled physicality and steely intensity a far cry from the more cerebral, considered roles she tends to play. Her Lara is no superhero: she feels every punch, kick, and bit of shrapnel buried in her abdomen. Of course, this vulnerability makes her victories feel even more pronounced – Vikander’s Lara is more athlete than aristocrat, an Indiana Jones for the CrossFit set.
For all its merits, Tomb Raider doesn’t completely escape the many pitfalls of video-game adaptations. The pacing is more than a little clunky: the film takes forever to get Lara to Yamatai, spending quite a bit of time setting up her lost-child dynamic and frittering screen time away with Nick Frost cameos and incessant flashbacks to Lara’s past with her father. The shenanigans on the island start to drag in the middle act, Lara’s death-defying setpieces let down by the very loose threads that connect them. Shave off 15 minutes or so of the film’s protracted two-hour runtime, and the audience can get to the actual tomb raiding – and all the delicious traps and Last Crusade-esque puzzle-solving they crave – that much sooner.
Furthermore, the film’s nature as a showcase for Vikander inherently gives most of the other characters short shrift. Goggins doesn’t get enough time to inject Vogel with much of his trademark weirdness, but he does a lot to emphasize the quirkier elements of what could be a stock villain. It’s really fun to see a bug-eyed baddie who’s basically a good dude, but just wants to get the job done so he can go home. West gets plenty of moments (more than one might expect) to play Dad, and has an appropriately warm chemistry with Vikander. Wu is charming enough as Croft’s erstwhile partner Lu Ren, but he’s given frightfully little to do, especially in the film’s final act. It’s a real shame for an action movie of this caliber to waste one of Hong Kong’s most prolific martial-arts stars so completely.
Good action can wallpaper over any number of flaws in these kinds of movie, though, and Tomb Raider has stellar set-pieces to spare. Whether Lara is hanging onto a rusty old prop plane for dear life to escape a waterfall or being chased by cyclists in an innocent game of ‘fox-hunt’ through the streets of London, Uthaug has an astonishingly coherent command of action. Cameras swoop and sway through jungle branches and city streets, always maintaining clear spatial relationships between Lara and whatever she’s chasing, stalking or punching. He even treats the audience to a number of beautiful master shots displaying the impressive athleticism of Lara, or the sheer scope of the tombs she ends up raiding. For what amounts to a CG-laden Indiana Jones knockoff, Uthaug’s visual flair deserves appreciation.
For all the stigma attached to video-game adaptations, it would be a shame for Tomb Raider’s many charms to go forgotten. The Tomb Raider games had long ago shorn the elements that made Lara Croft such a gaming punchline, so it’s nice to see the films following suit. Vikander is a beautifully effective avatar for the American Ninja Warrior version of Lara Croft. Stripping down the bombast of the original games (and films) allows Uthaug’s reboot to feel comparatively grounded and immediate, without dragging itself down with unnecessary pathos. Imagine Raiders of the Lost Ark, if there was a very real possibility that the Nazis were full of shit about the Ark of the Covenant: that’s the tone Tomb Raider strikes, with relative success.