2018’s Tomb Raider Was Better Than Its Predecessors, but Not Quite Good Enough
So close, yet so painfully far away.
In 2013, Lara Croft underwent a change so fundamental that she arguably became a different character: She put pants on. No longer would Croft fight her way through muddy jungles and chilly temples in a tank top and booty shorts that begged the local flora and fauna to give her some exotic infection.
Tomb Raider, the simple title given to the second reboot of the game franchise, also modernized the gameplay and told a relatively grounded origin story, but the fact that level design and the sculpting of Lara’s ass were no longer equal priorities was far more of a mission statement than any tweak to the gunplay could be. The focus was on Lara learning her craft, and all the ways her newfound career could meet a grisly, premature end if you were too busy ogling her to help her out.
That ethos carried over to the 2018 movie, also dubbed Tomb Raider and also a reboot, this time of the two dire Angelina Jolie films. At best, those hoary old flicks could be called statements of pulpy maximalism. A less generous interpretation would dub them worthy of being locked away in a vault so deep that even an adventurer like Croft could never dig them up.
Tomb Raider loosely adapts Tomb Raider’s story of the mythical Queen Himiko, who was said to have dealt death and destruction with supernatural powers before her generals turned on her and buried her on Yamatai, a tiny island near Japan. The movie also grabs the evil organization Trinity from the game’s sequel, but mostly it’s concerned with giving us a Lara who feels human instead of like, well, a video game character. Croft (Alicia Vikander) is introduced as a capable but aimless courier haunted by her father’s disappearance, all of which would be tedious if Vikander hadn’t brought such casual charisma to the role.
And so even though it employed the accursed words “origin story,” the film’s first half actually succeeds in its mission. There’s an entertaining bike race, of all things, followed by a fun Hong Kong harbor chase that culminates in the introduction of Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). Croft wins the drunken ship captain to her cause, and when the two set sail for Yamatai to learn the truth of Richard Croft’s demise you can’t help but think that you’re in for a better adventure than the film’s bland reputation suggests. Then the actual tomb raiding begins.
What’s especially frustrating is that all the pieces for a good adventure are right there. Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a mercenary archaeologist who can’t leave Yamatai until he uncovers Himiko for Trinity, is a fine antagonist as a quiet man driven half-mad by time. Richard Croft (Dominic West) is alive but has also seen better days, and he’s the only man on the island convinced that Himiko’s powers are real. Throw in the captured fishermen that Vogel and his men are using as slave labor and the story practically tells itself.
But practical effects give way to dodgy CGI, clever set pieces are dropped in favor of exploding barrels, and good jokes are replaced with horrid one-liners. The movie’s first half is quite funny — Croft and Lu Ren have a breezy rapport, and Nick Frost amuses as a gabby pawn shop owner — but Wu is then given little to do beyond stand in the jungle and yell, and the film’s sense of humor vanishes with him. There are some positives, like the tomb’s nasty traps, but by the time Himiko’s underwhelming secret is revealed to be ye olde zombie virus, firing up the game sounds more appealing than finishing this half-witted Indiana Jones adventure.
One of the few critiques of the game was the disconnect between Lara as anxious neophyte and Lara as avatar of a player who could earn bonus XP by pulling off sick headshots. That’s not a new dilemma, but the dissonance is harder to sell in movies. On film, Lara seems troubled by the necessity of drowning a mercenary tracking her through the jungle but, a few scenes after that brutal fight culminates in her taking her first human life, our erstwhile courier is mowing down hapless goons with her bow. It’s aiming for Rambo II but lands on Hot Shots! Part Deux, and it’s evidence that, despite its best efforts, Tomb Raider couldn’t escape the need to be a video game movie instead of just a movie.
Still, it was an admirable and underappreciated effort. Vikander was an excellent Croft but, in a classic example of award shows blundering what should have been an easy decision, she lost out on Choice Action Movie Actress to Scarlett Johansson at the 2018 Teen Choice Awards. At least she got to move on to The Green Knight, while director Roar Uthag made the critically acclaimed Troll. Maybe it was still a small step forward for video game movies, in that everyone emerged unscathed from a shrug-worthy popcorn muncher instead of having their careers derailed by a cinematic abomination.
Tomb Raider actually did well enough to justify a sequel, but Covid stalled production and then MGM’s rights to the character expired. That’s a shame, because there was potential to build on something here. Instead, we’ll just have to reboot poor Ms. Croft again. Then again, it took two reboots for the games to really get her right; maybe the third time will be the charm for Hollywood, too.