The stigma of films based on video games is a powerful one. Decades of overly faithful or decidedly faithless adaptations have rendered the idea of successfully melding the two mediums a bit of a joke. The movies end up being so unrelated to the game as to alienate the people attached to the property, or are so overly faithful that they end up alienating everyone else.
Tomb Raider, Roar Uthaug’s new adaptation of the iconic video game series, hews closely to the aesthetic of the 2013 reboot game, though it doesn’t exactly buck that trend of disappointing video game adaptations.
Perhaps inoffensive or serviceable is the best a video game adaptation can hope for. Inherently taking stories and characters based in player immersion and connection will always have a hard time translating to a new medium. In the case of this Tomb Raider, its desire to hit moments and beats that call back to the rebooted games seems to also keep it as straight-forward as possible. This isn’t inherently a problem in of itself, but what probably feels cinematic and pulse-pounding in a game, where the player is involved and Lara’s fate is in their hands, just isn’t going to have the same exact effect in the cinema. More and more video games have borrowed from film for action or story beats, often to success. But that property exchange doesn’t appear to work both ways.
It was frankly hard to get a grasp on who this new Lara was, and that was part of the problem of being invested in her journey and her moments of danger. There are little peeks of personality, a playful joke with a coworker, a staunch pride and haughtiness about coming from money, but these moments are so often overshadowed by the next physical challenge Miss Croft must come across. Alicia Vikander, Academy Award-winning actress that she is, throws herself into these moments with gusto. Lara runs and jumps and swings and fights and screams and bleeds throughout the picture, just like the ragdoll character from the game. She is subjected to abuse on an epic scale.
But despite all these opportunities for showing us more about Lara through these physical acts and set pieces (none of which stand out as fantastic) we never see more of her in these moments. The film seems more concerned with showcasing whatever (often shoddy) digital effects or (more impressive) physical stunt-work rather than the character. It’s the sort of storytelling you might see in, well, a video game, where the player inserts themselves into the shoes of the protagonist and therefore shares their peril or excitement alongside them.
I found myself wishing for, frankly, the wry humor and goofy melodrama of the often-maligned-but-really-kind-of-delightful early 2000’s Angelina Jolie led films (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and Lara Croft: Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life if you’ve forgotten. And seriously, they are more entertaining than you remember).
Tomb Raider has a meat-and-potatoes plot. Lara’s father disappeared years before in search of a dangerous and supposedly mystical person, buried on a lost island. When Lara finally follows her father’s clues to see if he’s still alive or not, she discovers a nefarious group pursuing the same goal as Lord Croft, but for apparently evil purposes. The organization, whose island outfit is lead by a sleepy Walton Goggins (I think the idea is that he’s gone a bit mad being stuck on the island for years, but it comes across as bored) doesn’t get a lot of fleshing out. They seem to want to wait for that to be in the sequel, which is heavily and nonsensically teased at the end. Daniel Wu also shows up as a foil and companion for Lara, but unfortunately disappears for large chunks of the movie. Still, if more movies had hunky Asian men as supporting characters, the world would be a better place.
With a perfunctory plot and set pieces, there isn’t much to recommend about the new Tomb Raider. It isn’t a disaster. It isn’t fantastically bad or suffering from worse than some shoddy digital effects that belong more in a Sci Fi original movie. It just comes across as rather fine.
The search for a truly good video game adaptation continues.