First things first: this is definitely not Angelina Jolie’s “Tomb Raider.” Led by the ever-capable Alicia Vikander, 2018’s “Tomb Raider” is a grittier, more grounded take on Lara Croft, drawing heavily on the successful reboot of the video game series.
And what do you know? As video game movies go, this is probably one of the best.
We meet New Lara as she’s searching for her long-lost father, who disappeared off the coast of Japan while researching the “death queen” Himiko. Himiko’s tomb, legend says, is located on the forbidden island of Yamatai—and a horrible destiny awaits anyone thinking of disturbing the queen’s remains.
Naturally, that’s exactly where Lara goes.
The film’s first act is probably its best (early on, there’s a delightful bike chase that favorably evokes Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s “Premium Rush”). Director Roar Uthaug takes his sweet time before launching into the expected tomb raiding, which gives us plenty of time to get to know our heroine. Crucially, Vikander is appealing in a way Jolie never quite pulled off, capturing just the right blend of self-reliance and wide-eyed wonder. As a result, Lara actually feels like a character, not a pinup or caricature.
Unfortunately, things go downhill once Lara reaches Yamatai. In particular, the movie suffers from a distinct flaw afflicting the games—something that’s always irked me about the way New Lara is written. I’ve recently been rewatching the Indiana Jones series, and one thing that stands out is the degree to which the series hinges on its protagonist. Consider the famous booby-trapped temple sequence that kicks off “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Recovering the idol isn’t a team achievement: Indy’s companions are killed or betray him, and he escapes alone. In “Temple of Doom,” he almost singlehandedly leads a slave uprising, and in “Last Crusade,” he takes down a tank-led Nazi convoy. While Indy does have allies from time to time, he usually spends as much time rescuing them as he does defeating the bad guys. (This Indy-centeredness is even more pronounced in the video games.)
Not so with New Lara. Over and over, our heroine is thrown into battle alongside a supporting crew of equally proficient (and, almost without exception, male) allies. In 2013’s “Tomb Raider,” Lara spends half the game trying to reconnect with her missing (male) companions; in 2015’s “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” Lara plays second fiddle to a crew of (male) soldiers defending a village; in the 2018 film, Lara’s fight against Trinity relies on assembling and arming a band of (male) captives. (And, for the record, there’s no good reason Lara couldn’t do most of these things herself. We don’t bat an eye when Indy takes out thirty Nazis with some fortuitous explosions.)
It’s a sad irony that even in these stories—the archetypal “female empowerment” narratives—our heroine never really occupies the full spotlight. The best moments of the series involve an isolated Lara fighting to survive against overwhelming odds; unfortunately, these are few and far between.
That said, there’s still a lot of solid material here. Lara’s inevitable descent into Himiko’s dangerous tomb recalls the best of the National Treasure or Indiana Jones flicks. There’s a great set piece involving Lara’s escape from the wreckage of a decaying bomber as a waterfall rages beneath. The film’s hand-to-hand combat scenes are satisfyingly visceral. And when certain iconic video game moments show up—such as Lara jumping across a chasm and catching the other side with an pickaxe—they feel like affectionate homages rather than slavish imitations.
“Tomb Raider” is not destined for longstanding acclaim. It’s mostly fluff (albeit pretty entertaining fluff) and never tries to be anything more than the sum of its parts. But when stacked up against the execrable “Assassin’s Creed” and the muddled “Warcraft,” it looks quite solid indeed. (Also, I rarely say this, but this is quite a family-friendly experience—violence, language, and sensuality are virtually nonissue. If I had a tomboyish preteen daughter, I’d take her for sure.)
In short, if there’s a sequel, I’m down.
It won’t win any awards, but as far as I’m concerned, “Tomb Raider” breaks the video-game-movie curse.