How do you solve a problem like Lara? Given that it has been over twenty years since her video game debut, Lara Croft has become a pop-culture icon, well recognised outside the gaming world and is likely the most recognisable female game protagonist we have ever had (sorry Miss Pacman). With two critically panned yet commercially successful films long past and a game series that has already itself been reset in 2013, will this latest interpretation of the eponymous Miss Croft be the definitive edition?
In present-day London, an incredibly ripped Lara (The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and Ex-Machina’s Alicia Vikander) fights in a mixed martial arts match at a training club; unexpectedly suffering defeat, this Lara is different from the interpretations seen before, not all-conquering and not wealthy either, working as a bike-courier to help pay the bills and struggling to keep up with payments for gym membership.
Accepting a race challenge with fellow couriers for some quick cash, Lara lands in jail when she crashes into a police car allowing an exposition dump via her guardian Ana Miller (Darkest Hour’s wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas). The reason Lara is poor is that her father, Richard Croft (John Carter’s Dominic West), disappeared seven years ago and presumed dead but Lara is reluctant to sign the papers declaring him so.
Meeting with the attorney for her father’s affairs she is given a puzzle box that contains a clue to his whereabouts, and from this she stumbles upon her father’s research into a first century Japanese “death queen” and the supernatural powers she was supposedly imbued with. Faced with this revelation Lara is forced to part with her one memento from her father to a charming pawn broker (The Huntsman: Winter‘s War’s Nick Frost) before travelling to Hong Kong to find the last person to see him.
When the boat owner she is looking for is also found to be missing Lara instead hires his son Lu Ren (Europa Report‘s Daniel Wu, an Asian film veteran) to follow their trail to a mysterious uninhabited island and to try to discover the secret of the death queen Himiko before it falls into the wrong hands. And this is where Tomb Raider, finally arriving where it should be, starts to falter.
The set up and exposition of any film is usually the obligation which builds up to the pay-off, but sadly in this case it degenerates into farce, from a woefully clichéd villain, Mathias Vogel of the sinister Trinity organisation, played with no particular menace by Sons of Anarchy‘s Walton Goggins to ludicrous leaps of faith and logic as Lara transitions from fairly savvy but inexperienced gym fighter into Rambo in the blink of an eye and digital effects that aren’t even as good as game graphics.
If this sounds familiar, it should, the film essentially turning Lara into a trinity herself, John McLane, John Rambo and Indiana Jones; simply swap the Third Reich for Trinity and Himiko for the Ark of the Covenant and you have a watered-down Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film which served as inspiration for Tomb Raider in the first place.
The classic tropes are all unearthed, a skull from which spiders suddenly crawl, pitfall traps that Lara manages to unbelievably ex-machina her way out off, rickety bridges and of course inept guards who can never shoot the protagonist. Admittedly, many of the set-pieces are lifted straight from the games but the poor renderings of the old World War Two bomber and Lara parachuting through the jungle fails to hit the mark on the big screen.
Some of the fast-paced action is well executed, for example the opening bicycle chase, however as the film reaches its climax it suffers from the classic problem of video game adaptations, where the director tries to play to fans of the game, the camera following the character in over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, stealth mechanics which work in the game as the player decides how to act but with no indication given beforehand that Lara possesses the necessary skills.
A somewhat unknown quantity, director Roar Uthuag earned the chair on this project from his two disaster movies made in his native Scandinavia, Cold Prey and The Wave, however it seems that the studio and game executives have placed heavy constraints on him and he has only been given room to breathe in the parts of the film where he doesn’t have to hit specific game beats, though he certainly brings the most out of his lead.
Vikander is certainly a talented star, but isn’t given enough room here to hit the heights of her prior work, while Goggins generic villain lacks presence, more akin to Aliens‘ company slimeball Carter Burke, while West seems to be in a different film altogether, his character failing to add the weight it should.
And this is the problem: Tomb Raider is a massive brand and this film will make money on the name alone, but even so this film tries too hard to be too many things in too little time to be outstanding in any one. In just under two frantic hours it wants to hit so many beats from an eight to ten hour game it rushes and doesn’t allow room for the ideas and characters. Existing fans may be happy with this generic action film but there is little treasure for anyone else to invest in.