Film: Tomb Raider
Director: Roar Uthaug
Producer: Graham King
Story: Evan Daugherty, Geneva Robertson-Dworet
Running length: 118 min
Spoilers beyond this point.
LARA CROFT’S ascension from primitive polygonal heroine to cult icon suggests a vision that, unbeknownst to the world in 1996, contained seeds of legend. Tomb Raider was a true 3D platforming novelty. Core Design’s decision to cast a sarcastic, effortlessly British bachelorette in the leading role set off a global fire alarm; the union of sexy badassery, demanding puzzles, and laudable level design captivated millions, propelling a humble vision into greatness. Naturally, film makers jumped at the chance to perform a cinematic soul transfer. A Sisyphean undertaking it seemed, judging by the failures of numerous predecessors.
The latest screen adaptation, Tomb Raider, comes from Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (Flukt, The Wave). His induction into the hall of Croft begins with a 118 minute tribute to the vision Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix divined in the similarly titled 2013 reboot. Alicia Vikander (Jason Bourne, Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) is a natural, slipping into Lara’s girl-next-door skin with incredible ease in the introductory scenes, rebreather not required.
Reckless and impulsive, she initially squeezes more personality out of the inquisitive archaeologist than we see across Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider combined. It’s not as memorable as Angelina Jolie’s portrayals, which admittedly relied upon a more colourful script, but rather than capitalising on her joyful mischievousness, Vikander’s blink and you miss it transition from MMA loving cyclist to arrow-slinging demon slayer drills a bland action hero tattoo right onto her forehead.
Daniel Wu (Lu Ren)’s intoxicated ship captain persona endures a similar fate. While his preliminary encounter with Lara crackles with promise, every subsequent utterance slowly dissolves into painfully generic lifelessness. Instead of the sheer, very tangible sense of terror players had when Lara scarcely avoided drowning and washed up on Yamatai’s shore, film Lara feels damn-near impenetrable.
The struggle is almost completely erased. It’s as if Uthaug and co were afraid to expose Lara’s vulnerabilities lest she’d be perceieved as weak, which Crystal Dynamics didn’t shy away from in the game; her growth from wouldn’t-harm-a-deer pacifist to ruthless riflewoman was heartstopping and real and defined the origin story. The distinction is much more obscure on the silver screen, which juxtaposes not sympathy but inexperience (failure to escape an MMA stranglehold) with survival (extricating herself from an identical stranglehold), and then sloppily rushes towards non-stop action sequences without a second thought. Despite what all the adrenaline-spiked advertisements will have you believe, Tomb Raider‘s reluctance to embrace fragility is a throbbing Achilles Heel.
Still, fans of the interactive reboot will be pleased to know several noteworthy QTEs (the hurtling tree sequence) and gameplay references (climbing axe, twin pistols, stealth shooting, exploding gas barrels) made the cut, and Vikander recreates them in spectacular fashion. In a quest to draw the curtain on her late-father’s (Dominic West) obsession with the truth, Lara digs deep, narrowly escaping from the jaws of death in exhilarating, prolonged rounds of action. Sadly, the repetition highlights a glaring lack of substance, and more importantly, the fundamental division between directing a game versus a movie: Tomb Raider treats theatregoers as if they’re armed with a controller in hand, and in doing so, turns what is meant to be a passive experience into a strangely empty hybrid.
To that end, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) is a necessary evil. His sociopathic tendencies radiate in every glance and bleed into brilliantly menacing articulations, sealing some of the cracks in Tomb Raider‘s banal scriptwriting. Prior to release, many hardcore disciples of the franchise signalled their disappointment in the film’s narrative focus, bemoaning the umpteenth summoning of Richard Croft. But it wasn’t the shoehorning of the worn-out ‘daddy issues’ storyline that bothered me; it was what Tomb Raider did with it. Both the 2013 reboot and sequel treaded with utmost caution when reminiscing about Lara’s father, a formula which the film successfully emulated until it decided shock value was more important.
Reviving Lara’s father felt like a cheap, even insulting narrative device. Where the abrupt change in script may have been intended to heal audiences under the ‘plot twist’ banner, it left me thoroughly baffled, silently praying that it was an illusion sponsored by Yamatai’s spiritual tourism industry. Not only does Richard’s reappearance diminish the psychological trauma of losing a parent, it also aggressively undoes the emotional tapestry laid down by preceding events. Lara’s reunion with him is rushed, unemotional, and out of place. What’s worse, Richard’s self-sacrificial TNT manoeuvre to destroy Himiko and thereby save his daughter essentially rewrites the game’s already exquisite ending, and forces Lara to mourn over losing him again. Can you imagine Eidos Montréal telling us The Prophet wasn’t actually dead in Shadow of the Tomb Raider? Or if they reused Himiko as a villain? It would be absolute heresy. Occasional attempts at humour barely keep things afloat, and the soulless OST really puts the nail in the coffin.
By the time Tomb Raider‘s ending came into view, I felt neither inspired, nor the incredible sense of vicarious achievement Crystal Dynamics’ vision managed to deliver. Even Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and followup The Cradle of Life offered fans a more genuine reinterpretation. Nearly two decades later, Uthaug’s reincarnation does little to improve things, and unlike the excellence served up in both Tomb Raider and Rise of the Tomb Raider, falls tremendously flat.