Tomb Raider means a lot of things to a lot of people. Many people were introduced to gaming via Lara Croft, the central protagonist of the series. A bizarre number of other people first met Lara when Angelina Jolie picked up the dual pistols in 2001. And some never even heard of the eponymous archaeologist until a little studio called Crystal Dynamics released their outstanding reboot of the series, spawning at least two sequels and a movie.
The latter of which, of course, brings us to today.
Now let’s nip something in the bud, I never finished a Tomb Raider game before 2013. I played bits of the classics, yes, but my only real experience was with Tomb Raider Revelations on PS1, which would consistently crash at the end of the Russian sub level and so I never got past that. Bet the purists wouldn’t complain about constant patches if they remembered those days, right? I’m also not a fan of Jolie’s Tomb Raider. I mean, I was at the time, but I was a 12-year-old boy, so OF COURSE I was, c’mon have you seen that movie? Oddly, the novelisation was quite good, and filled in most of the plot holes.
Hey, maybe this one will too? I’ll look into that.
Anyway, Tomb Raider is about a badass lady who is a raider of tombs. Well, actually, it’s not. Doing that thing game adaptations do for reasons still beyond my ken, the film reimagines Lara’s backstory in inexplicable and fundamentally inferior ways. The prodigy archaeologist now didn’t even attend university, instead becoming a bike courier; yes, a kick ass bike courier, but she’s still a far cry from any Croft we’ve seen before. Lord Croft is MIA, and Lara is finally getting around to declaring him legally dead, or else she’ll lose her fabulous estate. Ah, rich people problems. Before she can, though, she is led through a conspiracy that points to a darker side of her father and so on; yeah, didn’t exactly stretch the creative muscles there.
In a cast of strong actors, Alicia Vikander as Lara is the standout of the whole film. She steps into those combat boots like she was born to it, and not having to fake an accent throughout doesn’t hurt. She clearly worked hard to get into fighting shape, and I challenge anyone who says she can’t play the role to get in a boxing ring with her. No takers? No surprise.
The rest of the cast do what they can. Dominic West is a cut and paste Richard Croft, while Walton Goggins’ Matias is your run of the mill villain, with a sympathetic backstory I’m sure is very compelling on the cutting room floor; all we get is two lines and a photo for exposition. Maybe without that pointless first hour we could’ve fit that in…
Aside from anything else, though, Tomb Raider fails in its fundamentals. This is supposed to be a film about a woman who raids tombs.There is one tomb, and it doesn’t even feature for over an hour of the film’s 2 hour runtime. In the cinema, I was the cinema’s Milhouse, crying and wondering when they were going to get to the fireworks factory. The game threw us onto the island of Yumutai before the title screen appeared, yet narratively pointless bike races around London and cool chase scenes across port cities seem to be priority for the first half of the film.
And yes, some of the less pleasant parts of the 2013 game come through. Lara does get the everloving shit kicked out of her a few times, and that famous wound treating scene is toned down for the kiddies, with a lot less cauterising. But if you’ve come for an action flick with just enough punch, you’ve come to the right cursed island.
It’s not a bad movie by any means; that’s my whole problem. The sets are gorgeous, the action exhilarating, and even that stupid goddam bike race was genuinely fun to watch. Vikander, again, is utterly fantastic in the role, and I believed she was Lara Croft; all things considered, as an action blockbuster with a strong female role model, Tomb Raider nails it. The problem is that it is yet another adaptation that misses the beats from the source material. They’ve taken an ambitious, thought-provoking game and made it into a generic, action adventure. The script isn’t imaginative, sticking to your standard missing family member X is in location Y, complication Z occurs, etc. The supporting cast is good, granted, but they’re not given anything to do, and if this was supposed to be a character piece they’ve missed by a mile.
Tomb Raider could have been great. As it is? Well, it’s there, and it’s watchable, and it’ll make a fortune. It might not be a failure, but it’s the poster child of wasted potential. I’m torn, because looking at it through a gamer’s eyes, Tomb Raider should be a flop, but as a cinephile, I would gladly watch it again. And perhaps a third time. But that would be it.
One day, we’ll get a game adaptation that gets it. One that translates the wonder and uniqueness of its subject matter onto the silver screen. Tomb Raider isn’t the one, but it’s a fun ride; give it a look.