The new Tomb Raider is bad in the same way that all modern action-adventure films not named Mad Max: Fury Road are bad. We watch outlandish, physics-defying set pieces unfold but nothing about the events or outcome. Things culminate in a massive explosion, signifying that it’s time to stop eating snacks and go home. “That was pretty good,” we rationalize to our spouse/friend/acquaintance as we unpeel from the imitation leather chair and fumble for our slumbering cellphone. The night air greets us and we instantly forget the millions of dollars’ worth of time, effort, and expertise that we just spent two hours and $50 watching. Just another typical night at the multiplex in America.
On that uplifting note, let us more carefully consider director Roar Uthaug’s revival of the Tomb Raider franchise. A franchise, perhaps, that was better left entombed. It represents a dubious milestone in cinematic history; the first adaptation of a film that was, itself, adapted from a video game. We do indeed live in glorious times.
Two degrees of separation from its video game roots, this Tomb Raider lacks the charm and fun you might expect from such a fluffy enterprise. Look no further than the film’s poster art to see what awaits; an angelic Alicia Vikander completely covered in bruises and grime. Vikander’s Lara Croft is a sinewy and serious beast, lacking the same campy brutality and sexuality of Angelina Jolie’s original interpretation of the globetrotting adventurer. Jolie’s Croft was the stuff of fantasy; little girls imagining they might one day kick ass, and little boys imagining… well… you can imagine.
It’s hard to believe anyone could be inspired by this version of Croft, who is beaten and battered mercilessly in almost every possible fashion. Uthaug (who directed the 2015 Norwegian disaster flick, The Wave) has crafted a dreary slog that fails to capture any unconquered territory, either emotionally or visually. Every action set piece is derivative of better action films. Picture Raiders of the Lost Ark wrung dry of all fun, suspense, and practical special effects and you have something approximating the action in Tomb Raider.
The premise is painfully tired and dull. A directionless Lara splits her time as a bicycle courier and recreational kickboxer. She immediately proves herself inept at both, getting sacked from her courier gig after a breakneck bicycle race through city streets, and nearly getting choked out in her listless kickboxing match. This ineptitude continues throughout Tomb Raider, with Lara escaping each predicament through sheer luck. Henchmen can’t shoot straight, boulders can’t roll straight, and convenient ledges present themselves for grappling. It’s the type of lazy sudden comfort that a serious actioner can’t afford.
Worse still, we don’t understand Lara’s thought processes most of the time. When she clambers atop a massive door festoon with adjustable puzzle pieces, we have no idea what her rationale is for solving the puzzle. We see maps on walls and diagrams on paper but have no idea what they represent. Even a terrible movie like 2004’s National Treasure understands the importance of occasionally orienting the audience as to what’s happening. Without perspective there can be no suspense, and without suspense there can be no shits given.
The film’s emotional core is fueled by Lara’s doting caretaker, Ana (Kristin Scott Thomas), who pushes Lara to have her father (Dominic West) declared legally dead. He went missing seven years prior, leaving behind his young daughter and the keys to Croft Manor, a gaudy mansion that dwarfs most Third World countries. Lara, perhaps sensing events to come in the second act, refuses to sign the death certificate or carry on her father’s adventurous legacy.
“I’m just not that type of Croft,” she insists, just minutes before discovering her father’s hidden chamber full of artifacts, which prompts her to carry on his adventurous legacy. The inconsequential action plot revolves around the recovery of some ancient Japanese princess entombed on a haunted, uncharted island. Daniel Wu (as ‘Lu Ren’) is the drunken sailor tasked with delivering Lara to the island, while Walton Goggins (as ‘Vogel’) is the mustache-twirling villain who awaits her arrival.
Vikander flashes the acting chops befitting an Academy Award winner in the film’s opening scenes, some of which play out slower and more thoughtfully. Her beautiful face is a fluid canvas that registers every thought and emotion with a natural precision. Her brilliance is illustrated most sublimely in a later scene, however, when she sneaks one last glimpse of a doomed comrade. It’s a look so subtle as to be almost imperceptible, yet conveys her remorse more deeply than a page of overwrought dialogue ever could.
Tomb Raider feels oddly reminiscent of something from the DC Cinematic Universe, possibly because Uthaug, like many of the creative folks at DC, confuses grittiness with emotional depth. His insistence upon combining this faux gravitas with action results in countless scenes of unintentional hilarity. Never is this more apparent than the film’s laughable low point, which features Lara struggling to escape a derelict airplane as it dangles precariously over a waterfall. Some of the sketchiest CGI in recent memory frames this epic battle between preposterous movie physics and common sense. Predictably, common sense loses.
Had the entire movie consisted of goofy set pieces like this, with Uthaug aiming for maximum cheese and escapist entertainment, Tomb Raider might have amounted to something fun and memorable. By taking this ridiculous material so seriously, though, Uthaug gets buried in a tomb of dreariness.