‘Tomb Raider’ is a story of reinventions and conventions.
Ever since childhood, I have been in love with Lara Croft. She was cool, funny, determined, cold-hearted to most and fiercely protective of some, and utterly unique. She was a killer and a thief; but this was always forgiven by her intellectual enthusiasm and a genuine respect for the cultures she explored (as opposed to the mercenaries and power hungry villains she often faced while on her adventures). She was designed to be the female Indiana Jones mixed with James Bond (and hip-hop singer Neneh Cherry, apparently) but she became something else entirely; a unique heroine, badass and brainy, beautiful and deadly, and above all her own person.
In 2013, with the release of the new Tomb Raider, she became something else again. Set in the present day, not only is her background, age and look different, but her personality is reset too. She is an ingenue; out on her first adventure, yet still motivated by a thirst for knowledge, and her future indestructible self-assurance and fighting skills are uncovered when she finds herself in over her head and has to save herself and her friends. I suppose this could be termed an ‘alternative universe Lara’; all the same except Lara has been removed from the wealth and privilege that undeniably helped define her previous incarnations, and has become a little more personable as a result.
So the film of 2018 comes along. In a confusing, out of tone and pointless opening, we learn that Lara (Alicia Vikander) cycles round London delivering takeaways, is a struggling boxer, and is desperate for money as she won’t sign her father’s will (Richard Croft, played by one of my favourites, Dominic West) because she thinks he is still alive somewhere. She gets arrested after crashing into a police car during a bike chase, an on-the-nose and pointless way to show Lara has stamina and is adventurous, and is persuaded by her father’s business partner Anna (Kristin Scott Thomas) to sign the will. As part of it, she is given a puzzle box which she opens to find a key which unlocks a secret room in Croft Manor. She discovers her father had secretly been exploring the supernatural around the world for years, instead of just conducting business deals, and he was convinced that he must prevent an evil organisation called Trinity from finding the remains of a wicked Japanese sorceress queen who has been buried under a mountain on a mysterious island. So Lara’s sense of adventure and her desperation to find her beloved father sends her off to Hong Kong to charter a boat to go find the island, unaware it is infested with Trinity’s henchmen, led by the slightly unstable archaeology Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins).
The story is mostly faithful to the game, although this Lara studies nothing and has little direction or sense of self. By removing this, the film removes her fellow students who played a big role in the game, including her best friend Sam, a young Japanese woman, and Jonah, an African-American who is big in size and in heart. They are now traded in for a (literal) drunken sailor called Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and *SPOILERS* her own father, who is supposed to be dead, though I’m sure the trailers gave away the idea that he was really alive the whole time. Ren is naturally charming and likeable, but what seems to be set up in some early dialogue as a dual narrative (his father went missing along with Richard Croft) there is no real payoff to his backstory and his father’s fate is solved by two throwaway lines of dialogue. In total, his screen time must be about 20 minutes, but don’t worry, they still had time to imply he has a thing for Lara and that of course motivates him to want to save her. Because why else would anyone help a woman? While the father-daughter dynamic is good, it never seems entirely convincing– a half-hearted cliche, with generic nicknames and a symbolic gesture the only key things tying their relationship together. And it certainly seems a poor trade for a strong female friendship of the game, and sacrifices Lara’s own archaeological enthusiasm for a more conventional motivation of love and loss.
Here is the problem of the film; it becomes generic. The ‘Tomb Raider’ series always had moments of cliche, but it is overall unique; in this film, however, much of the plot and character interaction becomes melodramatic, trite and frustrating . The film wants to be dramatic and be as epic as it deserves to be, but it loses confidence in itself. One minute it’s serious and dramatic, a gritty reboot with a more sensitive heroine, then it throws in attempts at one-liners and video-game style editing. It’s scared its audience is too stupid to appreciate nuance. Even with large scenes devoted to building tension, or mad action sequences, the film fails to be truly engaging. It is definitely not dull but if you’re looking for gripping action, the film only manages to make a few moments of peril feel real. It’s hard to have fun watching sequences that are blandly shot in dull colours, with CGI that I can only imagine they ran out of budget for half-way through the film. Tomb puzzles and clues which were so crucial to the game are featured but they are never fully explained; Lara understands how to solve them and the audience just dumbly watches her do so. Indiana Jones’ ‘The Last Crusade’ (1989), which shares similar plot elements, shows how this should be done. To find the Holy Grail, Indiana has to solve riddles; riddles the audience has been introduced to long before, and they are equipped with the knowledge to solve them along with Indiana– shouting at the screen for him to jump across a seemingly bottomless chasm (all the while terrified that he will). ‘Tomb Raider’ deserved to be this kind of engaging film and I felt frustrated that it settled for being middle of the road.
One thing that definitely deserves unreserved praise is the acting. Alicia Vikander is an excellent choice for the title role, nothing less than real, determined in real life to become as physically competent as possible. At times even she cannot save some of the sham emotional scenes that fail to provoke response from the viewer, but in action sequences she is 100% convincing and she has a natural likeability, as well as a reservedness and mystery, that make her perfect for Lara. Dominic West is Dominic West; I’m never going to complain, and he brings sincerity to each scene he’s in, even when calling Lara by her god-awful childhood nickname “Sprout.” Daniel Wu is great for what we see of him, and made his underdeveloped character seem very real. Walton Goggins, notably fantastic in Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’ (2016), managed to make his stereotypical villain into a convincing and subtle portrait of madness and cruelty.
While the new Lara is not “my” Lara of old (at least not yet) even I grudgingly admit she has potential. To keep her alive and still developing, after 22 years of existence, is impressive. If she gets another adventure, hopefully based on the fascinating ‘Rise of the Tomb Raider’ game, then the elements to make it a success are already here. I just hope the filmmakers figure out how to put the puzzle together in time, and don’t fall into a gaping chasm like they very nearly did here.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi.