Tomb Raider is an honest product of the cinematic medium, not a silly or pretentious alteration of its original form.
Tomb Raider is based on the 2013 soft reboot under the game franchise of the same name. Lara Croft—the young female archeologist who globetrots and, well, raids tombs—isn't a stranger to pop cultures because she is rooted in the original game, which came out 22 years ago. The Angelina Jolie-led movies are still vivid in the minds of many, reinforced by visual patterns that curiously suggest both sexual fantasy and female empowerment. It'll be easier to reflect on that complicated legacy after we examine the new movie. Lara is now in her early twenties, without a curvaceous body or a badass demeanor. As she says, this is a "different kind of Croft."
In London, Lara (Alicia Vikander, Oscar winner for The Danish Girl) seems to have her own life, delivering food and racing street games between her disappointing sessions of mixed martial arts. Behind that carefree attitude and frugal lifestyle is a longing for her missing father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West). Seven years ago, he set out to the Devil Sea and never returned. Everyone else moved on; even legal arrangements are threatening to take the Croft estates away. Urged by Ana Miller (Kristen Scott Thomas) and Mr. Yaffe (a modest, courtly Derek Jacobi), Lara can sign her father's death certificate and inherit his giant corporation, Croft Holdings. Only a thin hope of his survival holds her back.
The real adventure begins when Lara finds a hidden room where Richard stored his life's work: images, recordings, written accounts, etc. West's voice provides the expository opening, and he comes back in more than the flashbacks with fragments of the relationship and the core mystery. Before going missing, Richard was investigating the myth of the ancient Death Queen Himiko, who might've possessed supernatural powers. This veiled secret intrigues Lara. Disobeying her father's request to destroy the documents, she enlists the help of a Chinese captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), and searches for Yamatai island, where Queen Himiko's tomb resides.
Lara was born into a wealthy family, and Vikander already displayed her upper-class semblance in the Oscar-nominated A Royal Affair. However, her credibly toned (not too buffed) muscle and steadfast mannerism dial down that veneer so we can focus on her running and tiptoeing in the jungles. She wrestles, crawls, ducks, and jumps through intense sequences with an even higher level of physical intensity. In Vikander's presence, the new franchise departs from its misogynist basis of creating a perfect male fantasy. The camera lingers on her body with a descriptive purpose, not just for fan-service. I also never doubted Vikander's ability to control subtle expressions; there's a moment in Ex Machina where the corner of her mouth alone tells an emotional beat. Here, she portrays a young woman (emphasis on young)—sensible, sensitive, and resourceful—with palatable vulnerability in crude conditions.
The first act fleshes out Lara's basic characteristics through action scenes. She doesn't excel at physical skills, but her wit, flexibility, and vigor keep the skeptical audiences engaged. In comparison with her video game counterpart, Lara's intellectual forte for archeology is removed, making her initially less appealing as an adventurer. The island is her first step in growing into the role. It's acceptable for an origin story, and the sequels have a solid ground to develop her more. Please approach this Lara like your adult self did A New Hope's Luke Skywalker.
The characterization is uninspiring as Lara's thoughts and actions depend on her father. The script, however, has an efficient way to establish and expand their relationship. Richard isn't wasted, and Lara faces more psychological challenges amid bad guys and death traps. Present or not, daddy Croft shapes Lara's growth so she later breaks away from their emotional tie and matures into her adult, independent self. The writing interlaces Richard's father figure with others of the same type—Lu Ren's father (also named Lu Ren) won't ever return to him while the villain Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) only wants to finish the excavation on Yamata and reunites with his two daughters.
Documentary filmmaker Alastair Siddons and newcomer Geneva Robertson-Dworet co-wrote the script, and after lots of riddle-solving, the plot goes beat-by-beat like many action-adventure movies. Important characters around Lara aren't remarkable enough to bolster her energy. Lu Ren essentially disappears after helping with her assault on Vogel's camp, and the movie forgets him until Lara needs help again. As Ana, Thomas is always on the verge of lashing out "I have had enough of your stubbornness!"—though we will see a lot more of her in the sequels. For the bland villain, Goggins creates no heightened personality; he's only watchable when gaining advantages or playing the usual routine of anxious arrogance. Thankfully, no one can miss the ever-entertaining Nick Frost as a sleazy, dallying owner of a pawn shop where Lara obtains her iconic dual handguns.
The fundamental problem with video game movies lies in the interactive feeling. When forced to watch the adaptations, we take a backseat and try to enjoy the story from afar, which is the antithesis to playing video games. So, as games are getting better with their storylines, the only point to make here is whether the movie is faithful to the game's key components: tone, style, and spirit. If the viewers feel elated seeing their heroes and locales—from passive positions—the movie can be considered good. And Tomb Raider is good, at least when compared to previous attempts.
Norwegian director Roar Uthaug isn't a newbie in drama and action. His previous features include Escape, a medieval adventure about female autonomy, and The Wave, an outstanding disaster flick with a devoted father at its center. Uthaug is competent, but the ordinary writing limits his control of the dramatic material about women and familial relationship. Nevertheless, if I have to make a comparison, I'd say Tomb Raider provides a more distinct and convincing development for its protagonist than the Jolie movies and A Wrinkle In Time. (I mention the Ava DuVernay flop as the release dates are close and Wrinkle deals with similar themes.)
Because the most adrenaline-pumping exploit Lara joined in London is an exciting biker game called "fox hunt," she's never experienced the island's dangers. Sometimes it's a hard survival decision that destroys her innocence; sometimes it's an untreated wound. A young person would collapse at such a physical and mental toll, but the movie brushes over it. If you focus on the movie's strength as an action piece, you wouldn't mind those weaknesses in dramatic realism.
Tomb Raider is a mixbag of good and bad action, with more of the former. The bad scenes involve melee fights and shootouts, during which the edits and camera positions are exactly as those of generic action romps. Though you don't have to suspend your disbelief too much, a scene with a falling parachute is hard for anyone in their right mind to forgive its physics-defying abandon. And super-fake CGI explosion is aplenty.
The good action is magnificent and thrilling. Hollywood-hired Scandinavian filmmakers like Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) know how to make the environment lively and integral to action scenes. So does Uthaug. His production teams utilize the environments and scattered objects to maintain the external intensity while Vikander enthusiastically struggles with perils after perils. Before the main show of booby traps inside Himiko's tomb, two major set pieces—taking place around, respectively, a sinking boat and a rusty WWII bomber at the top of a waterfall—are exhilarating and skillfully shot. Visual cues make the details stand out and easy to connect the dots, and Junkie XL's commercially captivating music fills in the background.
After all, there's only so much one can do for the action-adventure genre, which has limitations coded in its strengths. Tomb Raider is an honest product of the cinematic medium, not a silly or pretentious alteration of its original form's gratifying parts. After a twist that sets up the franchise's startlingly realistic tone, the last scene lets suspicious shots come together in a montage, envisioning future installments of entangled conspiracies.
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