If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, 2013’s Tomb Raider should be proud; 2018’s film version has tried gamely to copy its stellar reboot of a tired franchise, but in compressing its lessons and arcs has lost all of that game’s nuance.
Alicia Vikander steps into the role haughtily popularised by Angelina Jolie in the frankly dire films of the noughties. We are introduced to a younger, unproven and altogether less preposterous Lara Croft, abandoned years ago by her secretly adventuring father, and now slumming it in east London. When she finds hokey clues to her dad’s final destination she sets off for Hong Kong and Japan to find Yamatai, an inhospitable island.
When any adaptation comes to screen, it’s hard to avoid comparisons with the source material, and Tomb Raider suffers under this lens. Gone is the driven but understandably idealistic Lara whose own theories about the ancient princess Himiko convinces investors to fund her expedition. In her place is Vikander following in the footsteps of her father’s research, bringing simply a unique ability to solve puzzle boxes to the task of tracking his breadcrumb trail.
Linking up with the amiable Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), a drunkard captain who agrees to sail her to the isle, Lara is quickly beset by storms and shipwreck. Awakening on the island in the clutches of the derivatively dastardly Walton Goggins’s Mathias Vogel, she scrambles to escape in an extended and brutal chase, fight and climbing sequence. This showcases the film’s strengths and weaknesses in equal measure. Vikander’s athleticism and power is awesome, and the camera’s carefully monitored angles and zooms never ogle her, a marvel compared to Jolie’s treatment. Punches land hard, bullets crack with shocking noise, and the sense of Lara’s vulnerability has impact, as wounds and bruises linger through the rest of the film.
Outweighing these positives, though, are noticeably hairy special effects and plain lazy pacing. It’s well and good to have exhilarating sequences, but basic plotting helps, too. For Lara to, for example, find a bow and arrow inexplicably leaning against a wall in a supposedly basic cave is shoddy work; for her father to transform from potential lunatic to entirely rational between cuts is tiresome; for impassable gaps to be narrowed by CGI crumbling and poorly animated super-jumps undermines the sense of danger so desperately sought.
Tomb Raider’s setting in the sea off Japan also leads to some moments of uncomfortable Western-centric storytelling. At one point the villainous Vogel executes a kidnapped Asian worker in front of Lara, and minutes later more of these labourers are mowed down as they flee their imprisonment. They are nameless, without lines, and their purpose in the film is to shock Lara, and develop her into a toughened version of herself. This duly happens (again, between cuts), and their function is served. This sits uncomfortably, and feels borderline racist in its prioritisation of the British lead and American-accented Lu Ren as the only figures of import.
The film’s core narrative problem is that it tries to squeeze the excellent dynamic of its 8-10 hour videogame source into under 2 hours. Survival in a hostile jungle without the tools to hunt turns from a long-term issue solved gradually, under constant threat, into one night sleeping on a rock. The knocks, bandages and emotional steel that Lara is forced to develop arrive in the course of a couple of bruising scenes, rather than after a truly gruelling series of ordeals. It would feel unfair to compare these medium-based issues, but the film has so knowingly lifted the game’s structure that the criticism is invited.
On its own merits, Tomb Raider is a disappointing and middling adventure with a pleasingly gritty edge but lazy execution. In the context of the journey it attempts to portray, and the inspiration for that tale, it is a frustrating missed opportunity. For all that they are maligned by film critics, it’s interesting that video games are increasingly more thoughtful than the dire films based on them.