Tomb Raider hit video game consoles in 1996 with resounding success. It won game of the year by just about every major game publication out at the time and launched a successful franchise, which is going strong to this day. Lara Croft, the game’s heroine, is a female icon and one of the most recognizable and famous gaming characters of all time. The sequels were also generally met with enthusiasm and praise, though that is not true for all of them. In 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie as the eponymous adventurer, was released in theaters to unfavorable reviews. Despite the lackluster reception, the movie grossed an impressive $275 million and two years later Lara Croft: Tomb Raider- The Cradle Of Life disappointed with just above $65 million. The intervening years have seen those two films become guilty pleasures for a lot of fans of the “so bad, they’re good” variety.
In 2013, a wholly overhauled formula of the game was released, using the original title, Tomb Raider. Now, there’s a cinematic version of that reboot directed by Roar Uthaug and starring Alicia Vikander as Lara. In this iteration, Lara is living a meager existence as a courier, illegally racing her bike for extra money to keep up with the bills. Discovering the location of her dad’s disappearance seven years ago, Lara follows the clues to Hong Kong. She hires Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and his ship to travel to the remote island of Yamatai. Nearing Yamatai at night, a violent storm swells the sea, causing the boat to be dashed upon the rocks. Waking up in an encampment of the Trinity, an order attempting to reap the island’s supposedly mystical treasures, Lara manages to escape. Now she must evade her captors, uncover the fate of her dad, and save the island and the world from Trinity’s evil plans.
“…she must evade her captors, uncover the fate of her dad, and save the island and the world…”
All the ingredients for a rousing adventure are present- a capable leading lady, a director with genre bona fides, the input of Square Enix (the company that produces the games), and the backing of a major studio. Why, then, does Tomb Raider feel so hollow and generic? The screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, from a story by Robertson-Dworet and Evan Daugherty shoulders a significant portion of the blame. Given the importance Lara’s father, Richard, plays in the storyline, you’d be forgiven for presuming that the movie takes its time to set up how close they are and allow the audience to watch them bond before his disappearance. Excluding the recordings and diary entries Lara uses to track down his final destination, there are only three flashbacks to the father and daughter interacting. Each time is when Richard is about to jet off somewhere in the world to uncover a new treasure or archaeological find. The impetus that drives Lara to action is her belief that her dad must still be alive; she senses it, but their relationship is so ill-defined it is impossible for the audience to care all that much about it.
The other major writing gaffe is Lara herself. She is primarily dictated by whatever the plot requires. In some scenes, she is a self-assured quip machine, only for confidence to seemingly vanish the next minute. There is a lot of talk about how brave Lara is but she continually freezes in the face of actual danger, often becoming a damsel in distress to be saved by one of the male characters. She supposedly listens to her father, but at every turn, she either disregards what he says outright or doesn’t believe him, despite visible evidence he is telling the truth. A complex, three-dimensional character can have conflicting views or grow while working through internal tensions. But here, the writers have no clue who their version of Lara should be. In an attempt to make her everything, they make her nothing at all.
There are three credited editors for Tomb Raider– Stuart Baird, Tom Harrison-Read, and Michael Tronick. The film feels choppy and unfocused, having too many cooks in the kitchen. Lara’s escape from Trinity’s camp causes a chase and shootout, but figuring out where the guards are in relation to Lara during this sequence is nigh impossible. None of the action scenes have establishing shots, so characters just jump around from cut to cut, or seemingly appear out of nowhere. The lousy editing, coupled with the horrendous green screen effects, cause the action in this film to be a bloody terrible mess.
“…to make her everything, they make her nothing at all.”
Uthaug directed Escape, in 2012, which is one long chase scene. It is invigorating and intense. He brings that same swift style to this production. At two hours long the movie moves from one mind-numbing action scene to another with verve and visual panache. A swooping crane shot, starting in the trees, swinging low to Lara perched a crashed airplane is visually impressive and shows the promise the production held at the outset.
Alicia Vikander has proven herself in the stunning Ex Machina and winning an Academy Award for The Danish GIrl. Vikander has got the right moxie and look for the role, but she is let down by the material. She holds her own in the action scenes as well, despite the god-awful editing. Dominic West plays her father, and the two have decent chemistry but neither can overcome ill-defined characters. Daniel Wu as Lu Ren gives the only charming performance of the entire movie. His role is just as random as the rest, but he makes his one-liners land and his physical comedy works. Walton Goggins the main antagonist and is undercut by the writing. He has nothing to work with and fails to be menacing, creepy, or interesting.
Tomb Raider looks like the game it is based on, with specific scenes being lifted wholesale, but that is not enough. The editing is shockingly bad, the green screen is some of the worst in recent memory, and the characters are so underdeveloped it seems inappropriate to use the word ‘characters’ on them.
Tomb Raider (2018) Directed by Roar Uthaug. Written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons, Evan Daugherty. Starring Alicia Vikander, Daniel Wu, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Kristen Scott Thomas.