So … what is Tomb Raider as a franchise? Its original form was a vehicle for gamers to play Indiana Jones while looking at a sexpot. Its second iteration was defined by the 2000 and 2003 movies’ goofy Angelina-Jolie-as-James Bond-inversion. Its third, starting in 2013, was based more heavily on contemporary expectations of female protagonists but was nonetheless still just an Indiana Jones-style exploration game.
Tomb Raider, in its new filmic form, borrows mostly from the modern iteration but is nonetheless another story that owes too much to shallower aspects of genre and iconography while never engaging with the humor, scope and emotion of its pop-culture progenitor. It just … exists, yet another attempt at bringing Lara Croft to life without crafting a story that lets her character really shine.
Alicia Vikander saves what she can of the movie, imbuing Croft with emotion her role doesn’t require but from which it definitely benefits. Scuttlebutt about whether her body is up to snuff — Jolie famously stuffed her bras for her films — is, frankly, ludicrous. Vikander’s physique deserves a mention, however; her workout regimen was the focus of a lot of marketing because, well, she’s goddamn godlike. She’s essentially a superhero without armor or spandex to add muscular definition. It’s all her. Lara’s famous ’90s costume — green short shorts and a grey tank top — is modernized into cargo pants and a grey tank top. Not much of a costume, either, but purely functional. It drives home that this iteration of Lara is 100% Vikander’s devotion to the role, and not much more.
Walton Goggins shows up as the villainous Mathias Vogel. Goggins is well on his way to becoming a highly dependable character actor; his roles on The Shield, Justified and Vice Principals and in The Hateful Eight have made me a fan for life. His turn as a wily villain with a quick trigger finger is much appreciated. He hams it up like a hog farmer. Like Vikander, his character remains shallow with hints of depth that needed another script pass, but he makes do with what he has.
Tomb Raider falls prey to the problem of most “prequel reboot” movies, in which the production team strains to capture the origin of a story rather than simply starting with a character in whom we’re already interested. Here, we follow Lara as she goes on her first adventure, buys her guns, uses her bow and arrow, finds her pickax. This just means the movie ends precisely where it needed to begin.
Which movie would be more interesting – seeing Lara learn to raid tombs or seeing her raiding tombs? Assassin’s Creed had the same problem. As did Warcraft. As do most of the Resident Evil movies (which have the distinct tradition of rarely paying off multiple cliffhangers in a coherent or satisfactory way). As did the 2009 take on Star Trek and even a few of Daniel Craig’s Bond films. Watching Lara take on a mission would be far more interesting than a two-hour rote enactment of how she became the character for whom we already care.
The third act is the only one to feature any puzzle-solving tomb action and it’s by far the strongest. The rest? Mostly non-sequitur action sequences that all blur together. A bike chase in London, a boat crash, a river scene, a stealth-and-bow infiltration — none particularly memorable.
One small scene sticks out: It is night, in the forest. Lara has escaped from Vogel’s camp. She’s injured. One of his men finds her. They fight and, as with most of the action sequences, Lara is at a shockingly vulnerable disadvantage. (This is played to an extreme end but, I think, serves to humanize her character.) She ends up killing him by drowning him in a mud puddle. The camera focuses on the last bits of air escaping his lungs. Bubbles escape to the surface … pop, gone. Lara traditionally wields two big handguns and deals out death with reckless disregard, but this is her first killing. Vikander lends it a gravitas probably not present in the script. The moment plays heavy, dark and gritty in a way such reboots rarely feel but desperately pursue. It’s the only time Tomb Raider really manages to land its tone.
Once again: Vikander, Vikander, Vikander.
To otherwise go in-depth on how dramatically Tomb Raider otherwise undercuts Vikander’s take on the character is difficult without spoilers, but most of it boils down to her daddy issues. Lara Croft’s origin has always been that her Indiana Jones-like father, Richard Croft, goes missing and leaves behind his hobbies, which Lara then picks up. Tomb Raider muddles that story’s simplicity by increasing Richard’s role. Dominic West, who plays Richard, appears more frequently than he should and, honestly, lacks the gravitas required for his part. The movie is a bit like writing a Spider-Man origin where Uncle Ben doesn’t die until the end of the movie. Richard’s very presence as anything but abstract motivation weakens Lara’s agency. For a movie fronted by such a strongly envisioned lead woman, boiling her entire arc down to daddy issues is a disappointing turn toward cliché for a character that has avoided it better than most.
Along the way, Lara befriends ship captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose own father disappeared alongside Richard. The particular nature of their mutual tragedy makes them siblings of a sort. The chemistry between Wu and Vikander is strong. It’s a good call, giving Lara’s male companion a role that doesn’t supplant her, isn’t a romantic lead and fleshes out her father issues in a way that feels less cloying than the bluntly direct second-act turns.
My wife, who really should be the one handling this review, pointed out that the central mythology behind the treasure sought by the Crofts and Vogel is that of an “evil goddess locking herself away,” with the twist being that she did so to prevent catastrophe. Aly described this storytelling choice as a clever play on the way mythology often villainizes women and their motivations / experiences, which is true, but I don’t think the movie as it exists thematically pays off at that level, no matter how much the writers think it does.
Vikander, Wu and Goggins are strong enough, and the franchise’s general aesthetic present enough, that this is the kind of mid-grade action movie with just enough playfulness to enjoy extended life amid a small community — not quite a wide-ranging cult classic, just one with a cult following.
Again, the movie ends where it should have started, with Lara in control of all her assets for the forthcoming tomb-raiding battles against the evil organization Trinity. That’s a movie with a much stronger pitch. Unfortunately, there’s probably no chance in hell of that sequel ever happening; like many other prequels and aborted franchises, we’re stuck with another disappointing false start that gets lost amid its sheer will to exist. Maybe someday there will be a truly memorable Tomb Raider movie. At least Vikander is here for this one.