Released: 14th March 2018
Directed By: Roar Uthaug
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West
Reviewed By: Van Connor
The inevitability of video game adaptations for the screen yielding… less than impressive results has, over the course of the past two decades, gone beyond a joke to become a straight-up fact of life. Why this is the case remains bewildering – the source material, after all, has evolved narratively in sync with the technology of its platform, so if the games themselves are now more akin to the complexity of a big budget feature film, why do the films themselves end up so unimpressive that a Karl Urban-led take on Doom can genuinely be regarded as one of the derided subgenre’s high watermarks?
The answer appears to lie in the balance between story and spectacle – a balance that typically tilts toward the latter in console format, but requires radically shifting toward the former to be taken seriously at the multiplex. In the twenty-five years since the release of the demonstrably awful Super Mario Bros., no filmmaker seems to have been able to particularly achieve that balance. And it’s not necessarily down to the calibre of filmmakers involved – let us not forget, after all, that even Warcraft sported then-hot button talent Duncan Jones in its director’s chair, and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who can claim to have enjoyed it.
It’s a massive relief to be able to say, then, that Tomb Raider can genuinely claim to be the first actually good video game movie. Predictably enough, it’s not likely to strike anybody as an especially groundbreaking work of narrative fiction, but with some robust craftsmanship, engaging spectacle, a likeable lead, and a story set somewhere between The Last Crusade, and the five years of island-set Arrow flashbacks, director Roar Uthaug gets to hold his hands up and proclaim that he might not have churned out a gold brick, but he’s got a pretty slick bit of bronze.
More or less a straight adaptation of the 2013 ‘reboot’ game – which served as a stripped down origin story for iconic video game adventurer Lara Croft – Tomb Raider sees Alicia Vikander become the second actress to take on the mantle for the screen, amusingly seeing the character go two-for-two as regards Oscar winners in the role. This time around, our millennial Lara is a rather directionless nomad, cutting her teeth as a white-label Deliveroo courier and seeking out every potential adrenaline rush she can find in order to put off declaring her long-missing father dead in absentia and inheriting her long-languishing corporate birth right.
Wouldn’t you know it though, Lara soon discovers there’s more to her father’s disappearance than she ever imagined, as she discovers Papa Croft was hell bent on tracking down an ancient Japanese tomb whose contents hold the potential to enslaving humanity. Picking up on the trail herself, Lara journeys to a remote and deadly island in search of the tomb but, once there, our MMA-powered back flipping heroine discovers she’s not the only one trying to complete her father’s quest, and the race is on to stave off what might be the end of humanity itself.
Vikander makes for a rather likeable Lara, with Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons’s writing stripping away the wisecracking faux-Dwayne Johnson theatrics of the Angelina Jolie incarnation for something more deadpan and, at the same time, engaging. The Ex Machina star may make for a questionable “name on the poster” choice as far as marketing goes, but in execution Vikander’s absolutely all-in not only in the performance stakes, but also triumphs on the physical side as well. As you’d expect, the run-and-jump spectacle of Tomb Raider’s there to have fun with, and it’s a wise choice on director Uthaug’s part to tackle those set pieces with a refreshing absence of bathos and a doubling-down on the dangerous physical toll they take.
Jolie, admittedly, fared better with Croft’s memorable Estuary vocals then Vikander does here, but the performance that drives Lara this time around is solid and investible. Like the film itself, Lara’s a lean and muscular part not only visually but cerebrally as well, though it can’t be denied that Vikander’s deadpan take on the role does create something of a barrier for audiences looking for a more traditionally one-liner-driven “girl Indy” fix.
The supporting cast meanwhile can’t be faulted, with Dominic West as the elder Croft (having also played Vikander’s father in the terrific Testament of Youth), Kristen Scott-Thomas as Lara’s erstwhile stepmom figure, and the consummately reliable Walton Goggins as the rather cooly-menacing villain of the piece. Goggins has been waiting in the wings for his J.K. Simmons moment for years, and, though his villain here is written in such a manner as to effectively negate the need for real character depth, it’s still an admirable effort in a mainstream tentpole flick the southern actor has been in dire need of since his breakout turn in The Shield ended a decade ago. Amusingly, the film also stumbles across the exact right amount of screen time in which to enjoy the presence of both Nick Frost and Jamie Winstone, the pair serving up what’s really a reprised cameo as married pawn brokers.
For the fans, there’s doubtless tons of fun to be had – with numerous set pieces and story beats lifted straight from the smash-hit game. For those who don’t know their Tomb Raiders from their Relic Hunters though, there’s still a pretty romping – if predictable – adventure flick to enjoy. Nods to the obvious influences abound, and, hell, there’s even a successfully-utilised opportunity for the first genuinely engaging bicycle chase sequence since Premium Rush, surely the one thing nobody expected of a Lara Croft movie in 2018.
Visually, Uthaug offers up something noticeably softer and more generic than his far more grounded efforts elsewhere, though the intensity of his action beats do lean into his sterling work on, for instance, the pretty-great Norwegian disaster movie, The Wave. Robertson-Dworet and Siddon, meanwhile, build a pretty lively cinematic tale out of the property, with enough wit and charm to just about smooth over the more predictable elements in play, and Tom “Junkie XL” Holkenborg makes sure there’s always a decent undercurrent of excitement to his score keeping the blood pumping.
Tomb Raider’s never going to redesign the manner in which we see or the industry crafts video game movies, but with a serious filmmaker doing serious work, a solid cast made up of bonafide character actors, and a concept so ripe for the screen that it was literally born of it, this origin story adventure will serve a popcorn audience with admirable engagement and even garner a few new franchise fans along the way. There’s world-building, as you’d expect of any potential franchise feature nowadays, though it thankfully errs more on the side of Marvel than The Mummy as regards just how on-the-nose it wants to handle it, and, if a potential sequel were to come our way in the same vein, tone, and style as this – to be fair, pretty good – effort, it’ll be nice to see Vikander back in the vest.