Video game movies get a bad reputation. Some have been outright horrible, even from most any set of standards, while others, while never ground-breaking, are enjoyable in their own way. Thankfully, Tomb Raider proves to be one of the latter examples. Still, for a branch of adaptations as widely-maligned as these, every release has expectations placed upon it to be the best. How does this one fare?
To begin, it should be said that this isn’t moviegoers first exposure to the adventures of Lara Croft. No, there have already been two films made a few years ago starring Angelina Jolie as the duel-pistol packing explorer. While relatively enjoyable films even today, that iteration of the character, one known more for her physical assets as for anything else about her character in both her early games and those films, has been reinvented in video-game form, following a series reboot simply titled Tomb Raider in 2013 (pictured above). The grittier and more violent approach taken there drew focus away from Lara’s appearance and became much more about survival; it was almost universally praised, and a sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, has followed, as well as Shadow of the Tomb Raider to be released later this year. This would make now the prime time to bring Lara back to movie theaters, reflective of this new approach to the mythos.
Does it all work? Well, the fact that it does at all lies on the shoulders of Alicia Vikander. Minutes into this film, you can tell that she gave it her for the role, as its a demanding thing, even before Lara sets off exploring. With early scenes putting her into the fighting ring and racing through London, it all starts off with energy. In fact, that bike scene was probably my favorite thing about the entire film. She is thrust into discovering the fate of her father, Richard Croft, played by the always solid Dominic West, who secretly spent years of his life searching out ways to reach his deceased wife in the afterlife. One outlet of that led him to the cursed Japanese island of Yamatai and the tomb of Himiko, the mythical queen with the fabled power over life and death; Richard did all he could to insure that his daughter and the world never saw the horrors that could be unleashed there. Of course, this is a movie, so you know we’re going to Yamatai. Lara, an heiress living life apart from her own wealth and desperately in search of meaning following her father’s disappearance, goes with her father’s notes in tow in search of what lies there, enlisting the help of Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, who brings a much-needed sense of fun to the film), who has ties to her father’s original trip there to the island.
When we get there, there are already others there in search of the dark secrets. Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) leads a battalion of men who will stop at nothing until they find their way in. Unwittingly, Lara has given these men all they need to unleash horrors upon the world, and she must do her best to survive and stop them from doing so. It sounds like I have spoiled it all, and that is more than I typically share in a review; still, trust me when I say that there is still much left unsaid about what takes place. The plot is fairly standard stuff, but being that we don’t see adventure films like these as much these days, even a standard story stands out here in ways. All that sounds like a back-handed compliment, but it’s true.
I’ve played the Tomb Raider reboot that this film is based off of, and from what I remember, it’s safe to say that this is a loose translation. That game was focused on her interactions with a full boat crew that she tries to save and reconnect with, after a shipwreck headed to the island. Yamatai, Himiko, and even Mathias all feature in both, but there are key differences between that game and this film. It isn’t all a bad thing, as games that act as experiences over countless hours require different things in their narrative than a film with a definite runtime. Here, we see a clear focus on Lara developing who she is and desperately trying to connect with the memory of her father.
Small little touches like the crumbling and rusted crashed airplane from World War II make their way back, and they are surely to bring a smile to those who have played the games. In fact, one could say that there-in lies much of the appeal of video-game movies: a nodding wink to the memories they have of their favorite titles, as expecting a pure distillation of any game’s plot with exactness is never going to happen in the transition between mediums. The experiential nature of games isn’t correlative to the viewing experience of cinema, so moments like these, while possibly thrilling to anyone walking in to see the film, will be especially enjoyable to fans of the games.
While there are many action sequences like these, there is a visual dullness to it all that is unavoidable. Is that the fault of the director, Roar Uthaug, and the cinematography? Probably, because while it is doing its best to look just like the game (which it does admirably), much of the color and texture just runs together. The grittiness that served gamers so well in the game keeps things from popping off the screen in engaging ways. Maybe I’m wrong there, but as the games seem to be getting more color following that reboot, maybe any sequels to this film (if we get them) will be more visually appealing. Beyond the look though, there isn’t much that is as memorable as it needs to be. Fans of the game lamented the PG-13 rating of this film, as it robs the film of a brutality that was fairly integral to the game. Maybe the toning down of these elements hurt the film, but it does push, hurt, and break Lara as much as the rating will allow.
Content-wise, there is some language while fairly minimal; sexual content, especially in a film following the vamped up image of the original character, is refreshingly non-existent. Lara wears a tank top, but there is nothing about her portrayal that is meant to objectify her as has been done in the past. Blood and violence features, but nothing felt gratuitous. Lara’s survival on Yamatai comes with great injury, and seeing these things may be more difficult for the squeamish. The idea of dark magic is hinted at throughout, but it is never explored. I wouldn’t let that be a reason to keep me from watching, as many Christians are prone to do on the outset, as the film gives real-life reasons for why the secrets of the tomb are better left unknown that have nothing to do with the occult. I appreciated the way the film is more personal than the games, looking at Lara and the connection to her father and the legacy that is hers to take. Her feelings of unworthiness until she knows herself is interesting to ponder, and while the film closes with the idea of more entries, we don’t know if her story will continue past this. If it does though, there is room for more character growth in the future.
All in all, I thought the film was good, not great; there isn’t too much that is going to be memorable in the long-term, even if it is a fun watch, at least once. It’s worth a watch for any who crave seeing films with a sense of adventure. Familiarity with the games isn’t a necessity; in fact, I’d say that those who haven’t played the games may get more enjoyment than those who do, as the adaptation here is only very loosely based on the game in many ways. That begs the question of who this film was made for, but in the end, I’d say that this film potentially could bring more people into wanting to play the games. In essence, it is a fairly entertaining commercial for the game series, and honestly, why else do the makers of the game sign off on these things? I liked it, and while I probably won’t remember too much about it in a week or two, it was a good date night movie.