A Rare Relic – Tomb Raider (Film Review)

In 2013, videogame developer Square Enix released a gritty reboot of their famed Tomb Raider franchise, hoping to revitalise fan infatuation for the plucky adventurer Lara Croft. Now in 2018, director Roar Uthaug hopes to achieve a similar goal: adapting that game for the screen, Tomb Raider is intended to end the videogame movie curse, delivering what fans expect and bringing in newcomers as well. So, the question is, did it achieve these things? Well, the answer is a difficult one.

In terms of its story, it could be yes or no, depending on your perspective, as its as derivative as an adventure narrative could be. Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), daughter of lost businessman/explorer Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), is living a devil-may-care life as a delivery biker and mixed martial arts fighter in training, not quite living up to her name. That is until a vital piece of information surfaces, fueling Lara’s ambition to find her father. This will lead her on a round-the-world quest to rescue Richard. But more than this, Lara will have to step up to save the world from – you guessed it – a clandestine organization, going by the name of Trinity, that aims to unleash a deadly curse from the grave of the mythological Himiko, an ancient queen with the power over life and death.

It’s this far-fetched set-up that might have you rolling your eyes. Writers Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons and Evan Daugherty do little to justify Trinity’s motivations within the film. An end-of-the-world objective that seems ridiculous and unnecessary, it’s been used in countless adventure films past, damaging the film’s intensive narrative thrust as a result.

However, this sub-plot doesn’t derail the film entirely. When it isn’t struggling to incorporate Trinity’s dastardly Vogel (Walton Goggins) and his criminal counterparts, Tomb Raider centres on the coming-of-age pursuit of Lara, as she strives to show her true mettle in the face of adversity. Considering how iconic Lara is within pop culture, the success of this plot is a testament to Tomb Raider’s strongest achievement: this is the best Lara we’ve seen thus far, a worthy female hero in a time that troublingly lacks these.

What makes this version of Lara such a welcome surprise is that she’s a learner. She’s no Mary Sue, a seemingly invincible protagonist that offers little to any satisfaction in watching her triumph. Instead, she’s vulnerable, out of her depth. In her first fight, we see her bested, forced to submit to her opponent. In a number of her action sequences, she suffers from injuries and fatigue. Yet she perseveres, earning her victories as they come: it’s exactly the kind of female hero that we should be seeing, one who substantiates her strength as opposed to receiving it, courtesy of a generous writer.

It helps that Alicia Vikander proves to all those that doubted her that she is the perfect fit for the role. Displaying a feisty resilience, she’s endearing and likeable. Moreover, she’s dedicated to her action scenes. Putting on 12 pounds of muscle, she’s physically imposing and a force to be reckoned with, an attribute that supplements Lara’s hard-earned victories.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for its supporting cast. While Dominic Wood is a serviceably sentimental compliment to Lara’s steely reserve, the same can’t be said for Goggins, who’s wasted in the role of the antagonist, Vogel. Goggins has proven time and again that he has charisma and then some: see The Hateful Eight for a case in point. But the film mutes this characteristic, producing another one-note villain to go on a sadly extensive list in recent years. American-Hong Kong action star Daniel Wu is also stranded in an underwritten role as Lu Ren, a promising sidekick for Lara who is rarely given a chance to flex his muscles in the film’s many action scenes.

Structurally, the film is also a little jumbled. The central sequence on the island is the highlight here, made up of many memorable moments such as an intense set-piece aboard a dangling dilapidated plane that’ll have you biting your nails and wiping the sweat droplets from your brow. It’s classic Indiana Jones-esque material: a byproduct of what has come before, but a worthwhile successor nonetheless. However, it’s bookended by a slow introduction and a disappointing case of sequel baiting in its conclusion that felt superfluously forced.

But in spite of my criticisms, I’d still regard Tomb Raider as a success. Yes, it’s effectively Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade all over again. Its villain is unmemorable and its mandatory promise of a sequel is disputable. But its thrillingly directed. Uthaug and DOP George Richmond’s work feels raw and in-the-moment, amplifying Lara’s daunting situation. Plus, Vikander has really made the role her own. Despite the lackluster quality of the earlier films, Angelina Jolie was an iconographical image for the character: Vikander strips all memory of this away, creating a Lara that’s grounded, relatable and here to stay. As such, Tomb Raider just about seals the deal as one of the few videogame adaptations that works.

Dir: Roar Uthaug

Scr: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons

Prd: Graham King

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Dominic West, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas

DOP: George Richmond

Music: Tom Holkenborg

Tomb Raider is out in UK cinemas now.