Tomb Raider isn’t Star Wars. This would seem an obvious point, but it speaks to a fundamental design flaw of this Tomb Raider reboot. People aren’t writing Tomb Raider novels. No one’s doing big business on Tomb Raider t-shirts. People aren’t making YouTube videos telling the director of Tomb Raider what makes a good Tomb Raider movie. Unlike Star Wars or Star Trek or Marvel, no one really cares about the Tomb Raider canon. The fatal flaw of this movie version is trying to be true to it. What even is the canon? A girl in a halter top jumping? It adheres to a vacuum, attempting to service fans who aren’t there. Better have the halter top girl jumping! The legions of Tomb Raider fans are going to be pissed!
Was making a Tomb Raider movie a bad idea? Of course it was. Has there ever been a good movie based on a video game? None that I can remember. And there have already been two bad Tomb Raiders from the early aughts, starring Angelina Jolie, that no one particularly remembers. But the commercial reality of Hollywood right now is that the large corporations running film studios aren’t interested in making a modest return on a good movie. They’re interested in finding the next massive franchise that can spawn and support regular sequels, generate ancillary profits (toys! games! branding!), and become a regular source of profit for years to come. Investors want guarantees of future profit.
Tomb Raider is a high risk/high reward situation. The odds of it becoming a viable franchise seem extremely long, and as the potential audience, there’s every reason to ignore it. That being said, the corporate justification for the concept is just a jumping off point. Whatever the suits’ reasons for greenlighting it, a filmmaker still had to make it, and there’s always the chance (admittedly slim) of a filmmaker doing great things for dumb reasons. Hell, Lord and Miller made a great movie out of the concept of LEGO.
Roar Uthaug, director of this latest Tomb Raider franchise attempt, is no Lord and Miller. Or at least, the Norwegian director, previously of 2015’s well-received disaster flick The Wave, doesn’t seem to have been inspired in the same way. Or maybe he was and the studio made him chuck it out and focus on the halter top girl jumping.
Whatever the case, the film feels like 90 minutes of someone being far too reverent to the source material that is at best a distant echo of Raiders of the Lost Ark and at worst British lady Donkey Kong. No one cares about this. As Charlie Kaufman’s agent tells him in Adaptation, there’s a solution to seemingly unadaptable source material: just make something up. Uthaug and his screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (God knows how many more uncredited writers there were) never do, and so we get the uninspired story of a relic hunter who jumps a lot racing to shut a supernatural portal. The central theme seems to be rocks — rocks falling, rocks exploding, things being buried under rocks, people jumping from rock to rock, etc. The CGI rock designers really got a workout.
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is a spunky little riot grrl living in London, who in the first scene loses a sparring match at her MMA gym via standing rear naked choke. The rear naked choke will become a recurring visual motif in Tomb Raider, never in a particularly believable context, never with any thematic value. After Lara’s beating, from which she displays no visible bruising, the gym owner chides her for being late on her bill. Luckily, she finds out, from her bike courier pals, about a game of “fox hunt,” in which a gang of bikers (the hounds) chase another biker (the fox) through the city trying to nab her foxtail, the prize for which is 600 quid (quid being a British measurement equal to one lorry load of crisps). This leads to a medium passable action set piece of what is essentially fixie parkour. The gist of act one being: “this girl has moxie!”
Soon we discover that she’s actually a rich heiress, and she could inherit the entire manor house if she’d only sign the papers declaring her father (who disappeared seven years ago) dead. It’s always nice when movie characters have relatable problems. Before she can sign though, she discovers, through a series of puzzles, that her father (Dominic West) disappeared sailing the Sea of Blood in search of Yamatai, an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan, to discover the tomb of Himiko, an evil queen buried alive whose resting place supposedly contains supernatural powers.
Lara summons all her moxie for a trip to Yamatai, where she is eventually captured by an evil guy played by Walton Goggins. Much rock-jumping ensues. Throughout a sequence heavily influenced by Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tomb Raider feels almost contractually obligated to recreate gameplay imagery — Lara rappelling into a tomb, Lara jumping spiky things, Lara jumping from rock to rock. Meanwhile, we never find out much about what evil power this tomb supposedly contains or why the Walton Goggins guy wants it or what he plans to do with it. The bad guy is evil without being interesting, the plot familiar without being compelling. It seems to be setting us up for yet another dramatic portal closing. Except there’s a twist! …Which manages to be even duller than a portal closing, somehow.
The action set pieces are hit and miss, mostly not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and if there’s one thing Tomb Raider is actually good at, it’s giving death more gravity than you usually see in these kinds of movies, where faceless henchmen are dispatched with nary a second thought. For the most part, though, Tomb Raider is content to be the kind of movie that reminds you of other movies without differentiating itself from them. Presumably for a target audience of consumerist George Mallories. “Why would I watch this? …Because it’s there.”
Like the recent attempt to jumpstart a King Arthur franchise, which closed on a shot of the Round Table being built, Tomb Raider closes on a supposedly portentous shot of Lara Croft acquiring one of her famous weapons. I’m avoiding telling you what it is outright in case you really are suicidal enough for something like this to count as a spoiler, but imagine a Mario movie ending with him eating a star, or a Contra movie ending with a shot of the protagonist unlocking the spread gun. It’s a distillation of the movie’s operating assumption, which is that you will watch it solely to be reminded of the source material, a mediocre computer game from the late ’90s. The climax, naturally, is being reminded of the part you most remember.
This would be sad even in a movie based on something anyone actually cared about. Here it’s a climactic reminder of Tomb Raider. Who cares, man?