March 28, 2018 // 4:30 p.m.
Shh. Don't make a sound. Let me check the coast is clear.
Okay. I think we're alone. Now, listen carefully. I'm going to say this very quietly, and I'll only say it once. Are you ready?
I think the new Tomb Raider film might be alright.
Now don't get too excited, I'm not saying it's a great film. At its very best, Tomb Raider is a straightforward and largely unremarkable action film. Importantly, however, it is not a disaster, which marks it out from basically every other video game film ever made. It's also, in parts, pretty entertaining, which means it's a vast improvement on the phenomenally boring Assassin's Creed film from last year. Tomb Raider actually seems to understand what's good about its source material, and it does a decent job of translating that to the big screen, even if it does ultimately come off as inferior.
To be more specific, this cinematic reboot is itself based on the 2013 video game reboot, which aimed to reframe Lara from being a weaponised sex object into a more rounded, human character. It did this mainly by beating her up in lots of horrible ways and killing all of her friends (the standard solution to making a character appear more human). But it worked, sort of, and was also a cracking action-platformer to boot.
The film uses the same setting and a similarly drawn Lara to tell a slightly different story, one which sees Lara travel to the mysterious island of Yamatai in search of her missing father. Whereas the game commenced en-route to Yamatai, the film introduces us to Lara in London, where she scrapes a living as a cycle-courier and struggles to pay her membership at her local mixed martial-arts club (we've all been there). It's a problem she could easily make go away by accepting the vast inheritance her father left her when he disappeared seven years previously. But Lara refuses to sign the papers, as it would mean accepting that her dad is dead.
It's a somewhat unconvincing attempt to normalise Lara's massively privileged background, but as a way of introducing us to the various facets of Lara's character, these early scenes work well enough. It's also held together by Alicia Vikander's convincing portrayal of the younger, less cocksure Lara, whose generally affable temperament is underlined with a moodier, stubborn streak which gets her in and out of trouble in equal measure. Indeed, it's Vikander's performance as Lara that makes the film work, bringing a forceful presence to the many action-sequences, without reducing Lara to a one-dimensional archetype as was the case in the Angelina Jolie films.
After a sequence of events that includes an entertaining, if rather silly, cycle race through London and a brief stay in police custody, Lara finds herself back at Croft Manor, where she stumbles upon her father's secret study in a sequence that recalls the older Tomb Raider games. Here Lara finds a rather trite 'If you're watching this is means I'm dead' video, wherein her dad explains that he became obsessed with the supernatural after the death of Lara's mother, and that Lara must destroy all the evidence of what he terms the “Himiko Project”.
Instead of following her father's instructions, however, Lara does the opposite, and heads to Yamatai to track her dad down, which is pretty generous of her given her dad basically abandoned her to go look for her mum's ghost. While ably played by Dominic West (who, weirdly, played the bad guy in the very first Tomb Raider movie) Lara's dad is generally a problem for the film. The script clearly wants us to be sympathetic towards him, but he comes across as a bit of a jerk in almost every scene he's in, and Lara's obsession with finding him despite this casts a shadow over her own agency. He also has this really annoying tendency to refer to Lara as ''Sprout', which sums up the diminishing effect he has on Lara's character and the film as a whole.
Although the plot may have Lara a little too wrapped up in daddy issues, the film at least has the sense to centre most of the action on Lara. Indeed, after Lara departs London for Yamatai, the film becomes more or less a breathless sequence of running, fighting, and death-defying stunt-work. Within the space of half an hour, Lara chases down a trio of muggers through Hong Kong's harbour, abandons ship during a storm off the coasts of Yamatai, and evades the clutches of a group of mercenaries trapped upon the island.
The second act of the film is by far the strongest, recalling the first half of the 2013 game's survive/escape play. Lara stalks through the forests wielding a bow and arrow, and gets into pummelling fistfights with mercenaries who stand head-and-shoulders above her. These sequences are tightly edited and kinetically choreographed, while Vikander throws herself and others around with gusto. The film is also less gratuitously violent than the game it's based on, and Lara far less of a mindless killing machine. This also means that when she does make the transition from prey to predator, her initial reaction to this is far more convincing.
As an action spectacle, Tomb Raider works pretty well, but it would work better if Lara had stronger supporting characters to bounce off. The secondary characters from the game have been almost entirely removed, and the only character who fills that space is Lu Ren, the Chinese ship captain who takes Lara to Yamatai. Lu and Lara spark off each other pleasingly enough, but they don't have enough scenes together to establish much of a relationship. The only other notable character is Matthias Vogel, the mercenary captain played by Walton Goggins. Again, it's a decent performance, but he doesn't have quite enough presence in the film to make much of an impact.
After the riotous action of the film's middle hour, the actual tomb raiding of the final act is a touch anticlimactic, torn between embracing Indiana Jones-style pulp and a desire to ground its action in realism. It's still fun enough to watch, but after all the gunfights and chasing of the previous hour, it's a weird change of pace for the climax.
Still, this is probably the first video game movie that I have sat through and genuinely enjoyed, despite the fact that I accidentally saw it in “4DX”, and consequently spent two hours being sprayed with water and punched in the back by my own chair (which, while not inappropriate for a visceral action film, I wouldn't recommend as a default way of viewing). If you've played the 2013 game, then apart from perhaps Vikander's portrayal of Lara, there's not much here that you'll find particularly surprising. But you also won't walk out of the screen with a bad taste in your mouth, and at risk of sounding like I'm damning with faint praise, that's a big step forward for video game movies.