Here we go again! In the latest iteration of the archaeology-action romp, Alicia Vikander steps into the role of Lara Croft, on her first expedition much like in the 2013 reboot of the game series. Much like that game, Lara is on a journey to Yamatai, a fictional island in Japan, where the formidable Queen of Yamatai, Himiko, is said to have reigned supreme in ages past. There’s a storm on the way there, the ship wrecks, Lara gets captured and has to escape using her survival skills, you get the idea.
In a bit of a change from the original 2013 game (some of which are elements borrowed from later installments), there’s a conspiracy involving an organization called Trinity, Lara’s disappeared father is involved, and a bit of the mythos surrounding Himiko is changed (for example, Lara doesn’t have her pal Sam tagging along, so no host ritual subplot there).
I am gonna level with you all: I have not played a Tomb Raider game, so I did not have the same expectations as the fans among you when I saw it. I just wanted to get that out there and in the open when I say that I can’t speak to how well it did as an adaptation. But as a movie, Alicia Vikander’s Tomb Raider is . . . fine. It’s fine: it’s not great, but it’s not bad.
It was an exciting popcorn flick, but that was never in doubt. As you’d expect from a movie in the same vein as Indiana Jones, there is lots of tropical jungle to explore, Lara gets chased by guys with guns through said jungle, there are hidden temples, booby traps, and of course, an elaborate ancient mystery the bad guys are trying to unlock. There are no real surprises in terms of plot, either; it follows the same recipe Hollywood has followed since the 1930s. I enjoyed it for what it was, and it was never going to be high art. It’s just all the high-flying adventure you’d expect of a movie archaeologist.
You can read similar thoughts about Tomb Raider here:
That being said, there was never much of a break from the action, which admittedly got exhausting in the middle act. Lara’s chase scene in particular just dragged out beyond its welcome. Thankfully, the third act did not have this problem as much, but only because it benefitted from the pacing of exploring the queen’s tomb, with its hidden traps and the personal tensions between the explorers. I have seen other reviewers trash the tomb scenes, but in all honesty, I thought they were the strongest parts of the movie.
As expected of an actress whose resume includes Jason Bourne and Ex Machina, Alicia Vikander shines as Lara Croft. I may not know Lara as intimately as some of you Tomb Raider fans out there, but I can see the guts, the athletic prowess, and the love of a mystery that I have come to associate with the character through cultural osmosis.
Vikander has mentioned in interviews that she was a Tomb Raider fan as a kid, and her love and devotion to the character shows in this origin story. She is flawed and she lacks confidence, but the seeds of the heroine she will become are there and are brought out in Vikander’s performance. As a side note, for how relatively little screen time was devoted to Daniel Wu’s Lu Ren, the cynical ship captain plays off Vikander well and I enjoyed what little we got to see of their chemistry.
Unfortunately, one of the pitfalls of the film was its execution of Lara’s character arc, in part due to the writers evidently choosing to pursue the wrong one. It should have been easy to build Lara’s character around her one defining trait: being a tomb raider. The arc should have involved a lack of interest in archaeology or a reluctance to go on an adventure, turning away from her destiny as a Croft. Over the course of the film, this would eventually have given way to Lara embracing her family heritage and taking up her dad’s profession.
Like I said, the writers chose wrong, in what I thought was frankly the lazy decision to go for the old “character learns to put her ego aside and fight for the greater good” routine. At a pivotal decision-making moment in the film, you can see very obviously that this is supposed to be Lara’s defining flaw: that she cares more about her emotional attachment to her father than the potential fate of the world if she helps the bad guy get to Himiko.
This arc gets a bare bones treatment which means it’s already neglected in terms of execution, which in turn causes an even bigger problem because it almost seems like there’s no character arc at all, a problem Wonder Woman suffered from (for those who are wondering, she doesn’t seem to learn anything from her experience or grow as a result).
All of that was redeemed, immediately and unqualifiedly, by a great twist near the end that I adored. It’s not actually that big of a deal, except that I was getting ready to lambast the film for leaning on the same old cliché that we must not disturb the ancient tomb because of sorcery and magic and the power of the gods. And of course the mean old scientists try to crack that thing open and tamper with powers they cannot understand, right?
Wrong – dead wrong, says Tomb Raider. Turns out there is actually a scientific explanation for why Queen Himiko was considered a powerful and deadly sorceress during her time, and that scientific explanation is the reason it is a really bad idea for the bad guy to crack open her sarcophagus. It turned a classic action-adventure cliché on its head, and for that, a small change made a big difference for the film.
If it’s any reassurance, video games themselves went through a similar transition. I’m sure a fair number of you readers are old enough to remember when games having stories was a phenomenon, and since then it’s been a slow crawl to games having stories worth noting. Think about it: most video game premises are pretty B-movie in quality, from World of WarCraft to Halo. There’s nothing wrong with that; they’re great games and the stories they’re given are serviceable to that end. I ask nothing more of the games that I love.
But in recent years, the stories we see told in games have matured and many have begun to show a surprising amount of depth. We are still lightyears away from a game whose story can stand with great works such as The Shawshank Redemption or The Grapes of Wrath, but that day is coming.
So too film adaptations of video games. After decades of sitting through endless schlock obviously made by people who didn’t understand and didn’t care to understand the appeal of the games they were adapting (to say nothing of Uwe Boll), we now have a competent Tomb Raider film. It may be merely passable, but that only means we’re one step closer to okay. From okay, video game films should one day reach good and eventually great. I can’t wait to see where this stepping stone leads us. Anyway, thank you all for reading, I hope this was enjoyable and informative. See you next week!
What did you think of the movie? How is it as an adaptation of the video game series? Share your thoughts in the comment section!