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Movie Review: Tomb Raider (2018)

Tomb Raider (2018)
Tomb Raider

Back in early 2012, the Tomb Raider franchise was quickly becoming an anachronism. The most famous bulbuous-chested heroine of the video game universe, Lara Croft, was a clear product of the 1990's, with her snarky attitude, impractical outfits, dual pistols, cheesy quips, and over-the-top adventures, and she had already been the titular star of a pair of goofy guilty pleasure flicks starring none other than Angelina Jolie in her blockbuster prime. Few people expected the dinosaur-shooting, robot-training, supernatural-fighting female Indiana Jones knock-off to be around much longer, but then Square Enix rebooted the franchise from the ground up and delivered the most serious entry in 2013's simply titled Tomb Raider, which saw a much younger and more realistically endowed Lara Croft discovering her own capacity for survival.

Full disclosure: this reviewer happens to think Tomb Raider, the 2013 video game, is one of the greatest and most important games of the last decade in terms of storytelling, deserving a place alongside the likes of The Last of Us, Gone Home, and Spec Ops: The Line. As such, I expected this year's movie based on it to disappoint me. After all, a breezy hour and a half action flick couldn't possibly live up to the dozens of hours I've spent with Lara in her best adventure to date, could it?

The short answer is no, of course not. 2018's Tomb Raider isn't the movie to break the dreaded video-game-to-movie curse. Silent Hill notwithstanding, there has yet to be a truly great Hollywood adaptation of a game property, though there have been a few acceptable ones. Tomb Raider is by no means a terrible film like the infamous cinematic dumpster fires of Super Mario Bros. and Wing Commander, but it's held back from greatness by a few glaring missteps.

The biggest of these is that it never seems to know what story it wants to adapt. On the surface, it definitely seems like an adaptation of the 2013 video game, with the coming of age of a younger, more grounded Lara Croft as she gets trapped on the hostile island of Yamatai, home to both an army of mercenaries and a mythical sorceress named Himiko. There are a few story beats that are taken directly from that game, such as Lara having to leap off a ruined ship in order to get to the island or her exciting encounter with a wrecked plane, but right from the start, it's clear this isn't the same story. Lara starts off in a completely different place, and without spoiling too much, she ends in a different place too.

Tomb Raider (2018)
It certainly looks like the game, in all the right ways

Indeed, for as much as it is an adaptation of the video game, it's also a retelling of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. No, really. Lara brings to the island her father's journal which details how to reach Himiko (including cryptic clues on how to get past the booby traps that protect her) and promptly loses it to the bad guys, giving them exactly what they need. There are more similarities, but I won't go into them for fear of spoilers. Along the same lines, the final act has more in common with the similar Uncharted franchise than it does the Tomb Raider series, though this is probably a wise choice given the overall tone.

Still, the central character arc--Lara's transformation from a relatively meek and uncertain young woman into a resourceful survivalist without fear--is still intact. If the movie focused more intently on that, it could be a much greater movie, even with its liberal use of Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake tropes. (Besides, Indiana Jones and Nathan Drake are blatant rip offs themselves; that's not necessarily a bad thing.) Unfortunately, the story has an unnecessarily long opening act that wastes so much time setting up a straightforward backstory that it leaves virtually none for Lara's transition from a street-racing, MMA-fighting loser who refuses her inheritance to a lethal bad-ass who is always in charge of the situation. When that transition does inevitably come (in another scene gamers will recognize, but which is unfortunately cut short just as it builds to emotional resonance), it happens so fast the film should come with whiplash warnings.

Tomb Raider (2018)
There's far too much backstory

Thankfully, despite her character's abrupt evolution, actress Alicia Vikander nails the execution in every possible way. She is, without question, the best thing about Tomb Raider, and her performance shines through, even when the movie is at its most cliché and predictable. She doesn't have a lot of competition from Walter Goggins, who blandly plays the central villain, or from Dominic West, who hams it up to eleven as Lara's father. There are a few notable actors who do well with smaller roles, such as the far-too-respectable-for-this-nonsense Derek Jacobi and Kristin Scott Thomas, not to mention an awesome minute or two of Nick Frost. Perhaps the best side character, though, is Daniel Wu's Lu Ren, the hapless drunk who agrees to ferry Lara to the island because he is on a nearly identical emotional journey.

Another place where Tomb Raider really clicks is in its action beats. The movie is liberally coated in action scenes, and they are all good, even if a few of them are too obviously thrown in to break up the monotony. There's one in particular during the first act that comes completely out of nowhere, involving a chase through crowded docks, that is as pointless as it is admittedly pretty awesome. No, there's nothing terribly original or ground-breaking here--it's no John Wick or The Bourne Identity or anything like that--but for popcorn entertainment, the action is above average.

Tomb Raider (2018)
Move over, Tom Cruise; there's a new action movie runner on the scene

It also wisely avoids most of the pitfalls that other video game adaptations have fallen into. It doesn't offer many winks that are designed for gamers only--no references to special moves or weapons from the game that don't serve the adaptation's own narrative--and it doesn't treat the audience any more like idiots than usual. It's surprisingly earnest, and unlike other earnest video game movies like the recent Assassin's Creed, it also has a bit of heart, refusing to be antiseptic and emotionally void. It's not as poignant as it wants to be--mostly because it doesn't give itself enough time to develop a good suture with the audience--but characters do earn their blood, sweat, and tears in understandable, relatable ways.

Ultimately, Tomb Raider is a fun action-adventure that is perfectly fine for those who go in without high expectations. As the start to a franchise, it has a lot of promise--Alicia Vikander's performance alone is reason enough to make another entry--and as a video game adaptation, it's one of the better ones, though it certainly isn't the best. At its worst, Lara's cinematic origin story is derivative, forgettable, and doesn't compare well to her video game origins, but as relatively mindless entertainment on its own merits, you can do a heck of a lot worse.

FINAL SCORE:

2018's Tomb Raider is a fairly cliché adventure flick best enjoyed by not comparing it to the video game from which it is adapted, highlighted by good action and a terrific performance from Alicia Vikander.


-e. magill 3/22/2018

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