There’s nothing in cinema as cursed as the video game movie. Many have tried and many have failed to adapt video games into movies in a variety of ways. Some have been incredibly faithful to the source material while others have diverged greatly, and yet nobody seems to have found that magic formula that works for movie-going audiences. Amazingly, it seems as if somebody has found a way to break the curse. It simply involved a lengthy journey into an ancient tomb and lifting the cursed spirits that have hovered over the subgenre for decades. Director Roar Uthaug has done the impossible and made a good video game movie with Tomb Raider. Based on the classic video game that was previously adapted with Angelina Jolie as the star, Tomb Raider sees Alicia Vikander stepping into the role of Lara Croft and bringing the character to life in a fun adventure story that may very well lay the foundation for a long-lasting action franchise.
As much as I did enjoy Tomb Raider, the first 20 or so minutes of the film are kind of rough. Lara Croft (Vikander) trains in MMA and works as a bike messenger in London. She’s haunted by the memories of her father (Dominic West), and there are plenty of flashback announcing that she has long-standing daddy issues. With an MMA fight and a bike race, Roar Uthaug struggles with the action in these early scenes, chaotic editing and camera movements leading to a few visually bewildering sequences. Part of Lara Croft’s daddy issues involve a refusal to believe that he’s dead and thus refusing a sizable inheritance of his expansive estate and vast corporate holdings despite the pleading of her father’s former assistant Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas). When Lara discovers a clue as to where her father went missing, she dedicates herself to tracking down his last known location.
Tomb Raider really springs to life once Lara Croft pawns a valuable pennant at a pawn shop operated by Nick Frost in a highly entertaining one-scene role. With the proceeds, Lara travels to Hong Kong where retracing her father’s footsteps takes her to the port where Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) lives on docked his boat. Years earlier, Lu’s grandfather and Lara’s father took the ill-fated journey to a mysterious island where an ancient evil is believed to be buried. Lu is low on cash and high in blood alcohol level, a reluctant sidekick who joins the journey when the price is right. The journey to the mythical island of Yamatai is filled with wild waters, splashing and turning our two heroes about before they find themselves washed ashore.
On the island, Lara discovers a massive operation excavating chunks of the island in search of the grave of Queen Himiko, known as the Mother of Death. Leading that operation is Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been stranded on the island for years in search of Himiko’s tomb and is desperate to find it so he can return home to his family. The mythical elements of Himiko’s story don’t captivate Vogel. He simply wants to finish his job and go home. While Lara’s arrival may bring clues that guide him closer to his goal, she’s one tough cookie who is certainly going to complicate matters.
Having proven his action chops on the Norwegian disaster film The Wave a few years ago, Roar Uthaug makes the leap to American blockbusters and delivers a solid action-adventure story that is true to the character’s video game roots while not bogging down the film with a lavish devotion to 20 years of ever-changing mythology. At first Lara is a very one-dimensional character who is driven mainly by her daddy issues, but the script Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (from a story by Evan Daugherty and Robertson-Dworet) quickly makes the character much more complex than the surface level emotional neediness caused by an absentee father. Once the film finds its footing, this incarnation of Lara Croft becomes a strong, independent hero capable of using brains or brawn to get out of any situation.
The creative team behind Tomb Raider really put Lara Croft in a mess load of unenviable situations, and an incredibly fit and determined Alicia Vikander rolls with the punches. Lara Croft is an immensely physical role but the set pieces of Tomb Raider really raise the stakes for its leading lady, making her run, climb, fight, and swim in various action sequences throughout the film. It’s really in the final set piece that Tomb Raider proves that it’s carrying the goods. (The following is not a spoiler because look at the title!) Lara and company finally enter the tomb of Himiko and the film becomes a chamber of horrors and puzzles for Lara to solve, all the while Roar Uthaug shows off his chops with numerous suspenseful moments cut with sardonic humor as the director channels elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark without lifting directly from the classic adventure. Tomb Raider does take its self seriously for the most part, but never to the point where anyone involved forgot that this movie is supposed to be fun and it’s most certainly that.
After over a quarter century of failures, Roar Uthaug has delivered the first movie based on a video game that is actually good. Don’t get me wrong, Tomb Raider isn’t great but it knows what it is and plays to its strengths more often than not. Alicia Vikander brings some wit and charm to the character of Lara Croft while simultaneously displaying an amazing level of physicality to her role. As that extra bit of flavoring, Walton Goggins savors the role of the film’s villain and keeps the film lively and fun. The adaptation of video games into movies still has a long way to go, but Tomb Raider is the first time there is a definite step in the right direction, a movie that moves with action and humor that doesn’t waste its star power. It took years of digging, but Lara Croft finally was able to break this curse.