Like the 2013 video game of the same name, director Roar Uthaug’s new action thriller Tomb Raider ignores everything that happened before and starts from the beginning. It’s a reboot, an origin adventure that, by all accounts, is relatively close to the setup of the popular game. That’s great news for gamers who look for big screen authenticity from their source material; less so for moviegoers who couldn’t care less about playing games but at the very least would like a little logic and a smattering of common sense in their storytelling.
It doesn’t start well. Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) has ignored her absent father’s wish of getting an education. Instead she works as a London courier, cycling around the city. For the reckless fun of it, she engages in a bike race fox hunt throughout the busy London streets.
A furry fake fox tail is attached to the back of her bike, while a punctured can of paint hangs from the side, and she’s off, chased by all the other cycling couriers, dangerously dodging and weaving in and around the cars, the buses, and the London taxis, leaving a trail of unwanted paint all over the roads. Naturally, it doesn’t end well. She crashes onto the hood a police car, the paint splashing over its body, and she’s arrested while her fellow courier-chasers quickly disappear into the traffic at the sight of the cops. Once bail is posted by her father’s business partner, Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) the incident is never mentioned again, existing only for two reasons; 1) to show how carelessly rash the girl can be, and 2) the need to get some fast-paced, heavily edited action going as soon as possible. Considering the damage that could have occurred, this preposterous introduction doesn’t exactly warm you to the new Lara, nor to the tone of the film.
Lara’s father (Dominic West) has been missing for seven years. This puts Lara in a troublesome bind. She doesn’t want to acknowledge that Lord Croft is actually dead, but if she doesn’t sign the inheritance papers, the whole estate will have to be sold off. Time is ticking and forms need to be signed. Just as she’s about to put pen to paper, Lara discovers a key to her father’s office. She quickly runs out of the sizeable Croft Holdings city headquarters. Instead of signing legal documents, she solves a few puzzles, presses a couple of buttons, finds her dad’s secret notebook, watches a video message he’s left for her, and embarks on a journey across the world, intending to find her father. It’s all to do with a secret island off the coast of Japan where dad was looking to find a mythical queen, buried in a tomb. Whoever finds the tomb and opens it is said to inherit a power of life and death. It’s an elaborate retread of Raiders of the Lost Ark with puzzles.
On the positive side, Tomb Raider is considerably better than the previous films. Despite their popularity, plus the casting of Angelina Jolie, those two earlier adventures felt little more than vacuous contrivances; lots of noise, bluster and well choreographed action sequences, but void of substance, and occasionally incoherent. They both felt like the result of a factory lineup, a big screen, assembled widget. Director Uthaug is going for a more grounded approach, as though Lara is truly part of the real world, and that’s definitely a good thing. There are times during the many action sequences where it looks as though she really may not make it. The sequence where she’s hanging from the wing of a rusty old plane over a massive waterfall drop is particularly effective.
But Tomb Raider has its issues. Alicia Vikander is a good actor; make that, a great one. She was outstanding as Queen Mathilde in 2012’s drama A Royal Affair, creepy as the robot Ava in 2015’s Ex Machina, and she increased the fun factor as Gaby in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. And while she may sound like a good choice to follow in Jolie’s footsteps as the intelligent and athletic archaeologist, raiding ancient tombs while being handy with all kinds of weaponry, particularly the bow and arrow, she never fully convinces as someone who could do the things that Lara does.
Much publicity has been made of how after a lot of exercise and weight lifting, Vikander added 14 pounds to her body weight in order to buff-up, but a further 28 with broader looking shoulders might have worked better. Despite the training, she remains small-boned and slight looking, and rarely appears as though she could ever fight the bad guys with the kind of real strength the scenes require.
It’s all a fantasy, sure, and the less critical may go with the flow while intentionally ignoring the obvious in order to enjoy things. But when grappling with the villainous Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), the slightness of Vikander’s lean, toned arms never look as though she could really hold him in any kind of neck-hold and keep him there. In 2012’s thriller Haywire, casting mixed martial arts fighter, Gina Carano as the lead was perhaps the first time in a film where a female action hero actually looked as though she could do the kind of damage the character does. True, she was never a great actor, but at least her appearance was convincing. Vikander may look like the Lara Craft of the redesigned video game, and maybe that’s exactly how the gamers want their heroine to appear, but to expect the rest of us to buy someone who looks so lean and diminutive to be kicking butt and winning really is a fantasy.
There’s also the cliff-side climbing sequence on that Japanese island when Lara is looking for a cave entrance. During the night, there’s an exhaustive climb with a sheer drop required for her to get up there to the top. Yet in the morning, she leaves that entrance for a stretch and to face the morning sun and appears to be squatting by the beach. Evidently, that cave entrance somehow lowered itself to almost ground level during the night.
And finally, the puzzles, the essence of the video game. In order to enter the tomb of the deadly mythical queen, Lara turns a sequence of oversized dials that, when solved, removes the protective seal blocking the entrance. Once that entrance is opened and the pieces of the seal crumble, everyone can enter, only to be faced with another series of deadly traps in all the passages. But, as we soon discover, those deadly traps were never intended to keep explorers out, they were built to keep people in.
But here’s the problem. The power of that buried ancient queen is supposed to be so deadly, the intention of the designers behind those complicated traps was always to protect the world from the secret, and for the tomb never to be found. Well, if that’s the case, why did they design a puzzle to be solved at the tomb’s entrance in the first place? Why didn’t those ancient engineers simply plug the whole thing up and make the tomb permanently impenetrable? At the very least, that would have given Lara a bigger and more challenging conflict to solve. The answer, of course, is if they did make it impenetrable, there wouldn’t be a film.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 118 Minutes Overall rating: 5 (out of 10)