Word of advice for all the people involved in adapting geek properties to the big screen: the words “realistic” and “grounded” are not synonyms for “boring.” This problem pops up all the time when films based on comic books and video games come out. There’s a tendency to play down the more outrageous or fanciful of a properties’ attributes in an attempt to appeal to mainstream viewers who might not be as inclined to suspend that much disbelief (DC Films, I’m looking directly at you). This is certainly the case with the reboot of Tomb Raider, which jettisons the 2001 film’s ridiculousness and fantasy in what turns out to be a completely lateral move.
Based primarily on the grittier reboot of the game from 2013, the film follows the exploits of Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), an heiress to a vast fortune who’s chosen to ignore her inheritance if it means acknowledging the presumed death of her explorer father Richard (Dominic West). That changes when she discovers a puzzle left for her by Richard, which in turns leads her to the uncharted island where he disappeared. There, she runs into the mercenary Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who’s searching for the same supernatural artifact that Richard was tracking down, one that (of course) allegedly has the power to doom humanity.
There isn’t a lot more that happens over the course of the film’s two-hour runtime. Vikander jumps, fights, swings, and raids a tomb as can be expected in a typical Lara Croft adventure. But other than that, the film’s story is depressingly thin and uneven. It’s a shame, because you’d think the sight of an athletic-beyond-belief Vikander going all PlayStation would be a lot more exciting in and of itself. While the film is relatively effortless, and there are plenty of tense scenes that are completely sold by Vikander’s dedication, it just never rises to the level of truly exhilarating.
Part of what prevents the film from catching fire is the wonky script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons. Unlike the 2001 film, which dropped us in the middle of Lara’s career with no context or explanation for her superhuman skills, this film is determined to give us some foundational exposition. That’s admirable, and here we get at least some explanation as to why and how Lara does what she does. But the details of Lara’s pre-adventure life almost never become truly relevant, and by the end of the film even feel wasteful. There’s a lot of time spent on her time as a lowly bike courier, including a “fox hunt” race where Lara plays the “fox” that’s meant to establish her resourcefulness and drive but doesn’t pay off properly at all.
The other half of the issue involves director Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian film maker primarily known for the disaster film The Wave. Uthaug appears to be on the right track for most of the film, with a great sense of frame and composition. However, his ability to stage and execute an action scene is inconsistent, and his palette is decidedly muted. Some of the set pieces are edited to death, and his reliance on earth tones often leaves them muddy and confusing. Uthaug does, however, keep his focus squarely on Vikander, and her presence helps to anchor everything. A dynamic score from Tom Holkenborg (aka Junkie XL) helps. It’s not on par with his best work, like Mad Max: Fury Road, but it gets the job done with style.
Alicia Vikander is truly the reason the film works at all, and she makes an excellent Lara Croft, albeit not the one you might be expecting. Angelina Jolie’s Croft in the original films was a hyper-competent combination of Indiana Jones and James Bond, a cool, unbothered supermodel with perfect aim. Vikander’s Croft, however, is just learning her trade as a spelunking relic hunter. She’s untested and unproven, prone to failure and vulnerability in a way that Jolie’s Croft never was.
This plays perfectly to Vikander’s strengths as an actress just as the previous Croft was essentially tailor-made for Jolie’s brand of icy charisma. Vikander makes for a surprisingly effective and competent action hero, conveying most of her character through her responses to the numerous challenges Croft has to face. She’s highly sympathetic and relatable even during her most extreme stunts thanks to Vikander’s expressive face and emotional accessibility. The plot surrounding Lara’s adventures, as much as there is one, is never as exciting as watching Vikander fight through each individual scenario one at a time.
The supporting cast, however, is never as effective and too often serves as a distraction and pull away from Lara herself. In a film that’s supposed to be about the resourcefulness and determination of a brave woman, too much of the film focuses on the far-less-interesting men around her. Primary among these is the antagonist, Vogel himself. Walter Goggins seems like he’s sleepwalking through the role, only occasionally rising to any level of commitment. He’s a far less active (and consequently meaningful) villain than either Iain Glen’s Powell or Ciaran Hinds’ Reiss from the previous films. Dominic West does a respectable job as the senior Croft, his natural appeal never tarnished by his predictable and rote story arc.
Daniel Wu also appears as Lu Ren, a boat captain Croft teams up with who lost his father in the same expedition where Richard Croft disappeared. He’s thankfully never positioned as a love interest for Lara, but Vikander and Wu play off of each other quite well. He vanishes for large stretches of the film, but when he’s on screen, he’s a welcome bit of vibrance and eye candy.
The film is ultimately hampered by its questionable goal to keep the adventure grounded in reality to a fault. The 2001 original fully embraced the pulpy, campy aspects of its source material in a completely unashamed way. In some ways, the reboot feels like it’s apologizing for that, doubling down on earthiness and grit. A truly exciting Lara Croft film would have to find some way of splitting the difference between those two takes, making Croft a recognizably human protagonist while also placing her in exciting adventures the transcend the recognizably human experience. Seeing Vikander as this Croft in a narrative that was much more of the globe-trotting whirlwind of the originals would have made for a truly excellent piece of action cinema.
And we may end up getting that film eventually. A final scene teases at it, and it’s clear that this is setting up a series of films that will see Lara taking on opponents that will become more and more dangerous. That promise is almost more exciting the film preceding it, and here’s hoping that Vikander continues to deliver the same compelling and dynamic take on Croft that she gave here. It wouldn’t be the first time in the series that the sequel is a stronger outing than the original, after all. Like Lara herself, there is a tremendous amount of potential here that is never fully realized. Maybe the next tomb will be a bit deeper.
FBOTU Score: 5 out of 10 / C