The fundamental difficulty in adapting a video game into a movie comes from the very nature of each medium. For a video game, it is imperative that your central character is not fully realized. There need to be holes in the characterization into which the player can insert him/herself. Furthermore, much of the action of a video game consists of tasks that, while fun to play, would be tedious to watch. If ever a literal adaptation of Super Mario were to occur, a large portion of it would just be a little man jumping from platform to platform. Yeah, it’s certainly an entertaining challenge when you’re working the sticks, but it doesn’t make for great cinema. Such is why the most successful video game adaptations tend to abandon all but the most basic pieces of branding from their source material. Individual mileage may vary, but for my money, the most successful game-to-film property has been the Resident Evil series. Short of a few Easter eggs to relate it to the source material, it’s kind of its own thing. This isn’t so for Tomb Raider. This movie feels very much like a video game, and that’s a shame, because I think that this property, with the right touch, could make for a great series.
For what it’s worth, this latest iteration of Tomb Raider is my first experience with the material. I’ve never been much of a gamer until recently (thanks Super Mario Odyssey), and I’ve never seen either of the previous films. While I’ve always been curious, and generally enjoy the work of both Simon West and Jan de Bont (within reason), something about the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider films never appealed to me enough to check ‘em out. And if Ryan is to be believed, I’m not missing much except for a zany post-shower sequence. So it’s with few preconceived notions that I took in Tomb Raider, and while I do think that fans of the property might feel a little more generous toward the faults of the film than I, I also think that my outsider perspective is valid. Why? Because in a vacuum, Tomb Raider must function as a movie. Unfortunately, it does not. It’s a pretty bland affair, made with all the craft of, well, a video game cut scene.
So the film ends up shooting itself in the foot by trying to appeal to a broad audience as well as to fans of the source material. In trying to do both, it succeeds at neither. Leaving me asking the question of just who is Lara Croft? Because after many years as an impartial witness to the franchise, and current consumer of the latest iteration, the best I’ve got is this:
Lara Croft is a physically capable woman who raids tombs and grunts when she jumps.
Here in 2018, we are making strides toward female action heroes who aren’t created in the male gaze, and this film succeeds at giving us a character that, while certainly physically attractive, is not defined by said attractiveness. Nor is her physical appeal the focus by the filmmakers. From what I understand, the same cannot be said for Lara Croft’s inception, nor for her two earlier films. I remember reading GamePro Magazine as a young lad and seeing the first screenshots of Lara Croft in action. It’s comical now to see how unsexy these intentionally sexualized images are in hindsight, and outright hilarious to remember hormonal little Danny thinking that this was the height of female hotness.
I bring this up because presently, such notions disgust me. However, I’d bet good money that the bulk of male Lara Croft fans are about my age, and probably felt the same empty attraction to the character back when they were children too. It’s a good thing that the powers that be have reclaimed Lara Croft into a character no longer defined by her body, but as far as I can tell, she’s not really defined by anything else. She’s not defined at all. I can’t speak to the way she is depicted in the games, but in my experience, even if she’s been given a decent characterization within the bounds of being a playable avatar, it hasn’t transferred to the big screen. As awful as it sounds, I must wonder if there really is anything to the character beyond what she looks like and how well she can be controlled by the player.
If anything, this new iteration of Croft is an opportunity to inject the character with something of substance — to give her a personality and put her into an adventure that doesn’t require active consumption the way that video games do. But this opportunity has been missed.
Tomb Raider posits itself as a modern update on an old brand. We’ve got Alicia Vikander stepping into the lead role, and we’ve got Roar Uthaug (The Wave) behind the camera. The thing is, short of the elimination of the male gaze, nothing about the movie feels modern at all. The camerawork is shoddy, the action sequences are sparse and poorly rendered, and the utterly ridiculous CGI stunt work looks, well, utterly ridiculous.
Plot-wise, the film unspools just like a video game. We meet young Lara at the gym, where she’s engaged in a real button-masher of a mixed martial arts bout. Needless to say, if this were a video game, it would, by nature, HAVE to look better than this, because the way this is shot is incomprehensible. Averaging about fifty cuts every three seconds, all on a camera that will not stop shaking, one wonders why anyone even bothered hiring a director when simply throwing a GoPro around a crowded gym would’ve resulted in identical footage. Following that is a poorly-conceived bicycle chase shot with all the pizazz of a PowerPoint presentation. It might’ve worked in a video game. But this is not a video game.
We soon learn that Lara’s father (Dominic West) mysteriously disappeared seven years prior, and his estate is desperately trying to get Lara to sign a document officially declaring him deceased. Lara refuses partially because she believes he may still be alive, and partially because she’s not interested in a huge inheritance. She doesn’t want to live off the Croft name, preferring instead to do her own thing. Eventually she relents, and in doing so is given access to all of her father’s belongings.
Expository voice overs (like in a video game) tell us that he was seeking a mysterious island on which a mythical woman was buried. It is his hope that by discovering/raiding this tomb and investigating its apparent supernatural qualities, he can better understand death — an obsession he’s had since the passing of his wife. So ya know, rather than spend time with his newly motherless daughter, he hunts magical treasure and just kinda checks up on her here and there. Real stand up guy.
So of course Lara follows in his footsteps and gets into an adventure. Each set-piece is a level, complete with worthless henchmen and mini-bosses. A few nonsensical chase scenes ensue, as do a handful of fistfights, all culminating in a wonky third act involving a tomb and the subsequent raiding of it.
It’s not an outright terrible film, but it’s just so bland that it fails to make a case for its own existence. As Lara and her supporting cast run and gun through the jungle or yell out solutions to mysterious puzzles, it drives home the point that all of this would work so much better if we in the audience were allowed to play it instead of just look at it. But we can’t play it. It’s not a game. So instead we must watch while the movie does everything for us, without enough thematic/character material to do so.
This really would make a fun game. But it’s not a fun movie.
The cast is a mixed bag. Dominic West has been serially misused for his entire post-The Wire career, and Tomb Raider continues the trend. The father/daughter stuff works better than it should, but is mostly superfluous (like when a video game throws a long cut-scene in the way of the action). Walton Goggins puts in great work as the villain, Matthias Vogel, which is to be expected given his pedigree for playing crazy-eyed weirdos. But he, like everyone else, is severely underserved by the script. Almost nothing his character (or anyone else’s) does makes a lick of sense.
As for Alicia Vikander, well, I’m not feeling her. I know she’s an Academy Award winner and all, but outside of Ex Machina, she has consistently failed to make an impression on me. I wouldn’t say she’s bad actress — she’s capable of convincingly portraying the emotions required by her characters — but much like the movie surrounding her, she is almost immediately forgotten when the work is done. I want to be a fan, and I’m hopeful that she’s just a victim of miscasting, but she’s a non-entity here. That shouldn’t be the case when you’re dealing with an established brand, and attempting to build a movie around an iconic character. Perhaps it’s the aforementioned issues inherent to video game adaptations that have placed an unworkable character into her career path, but maybe not. I can’t help feeling that the right person could’ve injected something into this role that didn’t exist on the page.
If you’re trying to launch a franchise on the back of an a single character, you gotta give it some verve. Or just make it a video game and give us Atomic Blonde 2: Blonde Ambition instead.
Tomb Raider opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.