Review: Gritty “Tomb Raider” reboot clears a low bar

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 3/27/18 1:30am

According to Rotten Tomatoes, 2018’s “Tomb Raider” is the best reviewed video game film adaptation … ever. Given that it has a modest 50 percent critical approval rating, I’d argue that says more about the infamously abysmal quality of such adaptations than it does about anything else. Video game films are notorious for their ability to trip and fall over the exceedingly low bar set by so many generic Hollywood blockbusters.

Yet “Tomb Raider” had potential from the outset. The games upon which it is based are immensely popular, and while the previous adaptation, 200l’s Angelina Jolie-starring “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” was not a hit with the critics, it has since developed something of a cult following.

Having played video games less than half a dozen times in my life, I can’t speak to how faithful this newest film is to its source material. Curiously enough, it actually draws quite a lot from the Jolie film, and where it does differ it tends to make improvements. For example, Lara Croft does not begin this new story as a wealthy heiress but rather as a poor, mischievous young woman who refuses to inherit her father’s fortune in the hopes that he is still alive. She eventually tracks him down to Yamatai, a treacherous island off the coast of Japan where he was last seen searching for the tomb of Himiko, a mythical queen of death. Together with her stalwart, though not always sober companion Lu Ren, she finds Mathias Vogel, a representative of “Trinity,” a mysterious organization with plans to use Himiko’s powers for nefarious means.  

Although the plot does often feel like an updated reworking of the better elements from the Jolie film, the real cinematic antecedent here is “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Indeed, Lara Croft has often been dubbed the “female Indiana Jones.” Such comparative labels have always seemed rather inequitable to me; they imply that one cannot have a character like Lara without a male predecessor to pave the way. Yet when discussing this film, one also cannot deny the cultural impact of “Raiders.” Like that film, the plot of “Tomb Raider” seems to exist primarily to string together a group of fundamentally disjointed action set pieces. After all, these films are sold not on tightly woven narratives but on excitement and exoticism (it should be noted that the odor of Orientalism taints the Himiko subplot in this otherwise ludicrous and innocent screenplay). 

The end result is enjoyable, if uneven, mostly living up to its potential and thereby soaring high in comparison to fellow video game adaptations. The primary problem is that the film can’t quite decide what it’s trying to emulate. On the one hand, it wants to do for Lara Croft what “Casino Royale” did for James Bond. Like that film, the final scene here implies that Lara has only just become the character fans already know and love, and much of the first act seems tailored toward a grittier, more “realistic” reboot approach. At the same time, director Roar Uthaug clearly wants to make a proper descendant to the aforementioned “Raiders,” complete with macabre skeletons, booby traps and haunted tombs. Suffice it to say the film works infinitely better when it embraces its pulpy, quixotic roots. The ridiculousness of this premise is only fun when the screenplay runs with it, as it does more frequently once we get to Yamatai.

As silly as the story may be, the film wisely has the courtesy to take its characters seriously. Daniel Wu brings proper humanity to Lu Ren, who might otherwise feel like a token minority character whose sole function is to assist Lara. Dominic West, likewise, exhibits real emotional heft as Lara’s father in some of the film’s slower and most effective scenes. Walton Goggins does his best with Vogel, a character who embodies the film’s tonal dilemma. The writers try to have their cake and eat it too, portraying Vogel as both monstrously inhuman and vaguely sympathetic. As with the overall film, the former, more bombastic approach proves to be superior. Goggins is at his best when he’s feverishly channeling the mad Colonel Kurtz from Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.”

The depiction of Lara Croft herself has always been contentious, particularly amongst feminist critics, and the same holds true for this film. Since her inception, some have argued that the character is merely a sex object, yet others contend that she is the rare example of an active female agent. Thankfully, Lara is largely un-objectified in “Tomb Raider.” And while many agree she is an engaging, headstrong protagonist, some still take issue with the fact that she is, in their opinion, often a “punching bag” during the action scenes. 

While one could spend hours productively debating the complex and occasionally contradictory gender politics in the film, I only have 1,000 words, so I must be brief. For the most part, I think Lara can only be interpreted as a “punching bag” if one is truly uninvested in her character arc and Alicia Vikander’s magnetic performance. The film takes advantage of the fact that this is her first adventure, demonstrating that Lara has no desire to harm anyone. In fact, the scene where she takes a life for the first time is legitimately upsetting and, at least for a moment, the violence is not trivialized. Furthermore, she learns to become an action star not through her innate capacity to cause injury, but through her need to save herself and those she loves. Yes, this means that Lara is initially the underdog in fights with her male adversaries, but it also makes her heroism feel genuinely earned in a way that can almost never be said for the leads of other action-packed franchises. 

Moreover, for all of the film’s flaws, Vikander’s performance is the one element that always works. Her ability to combine enigma and vulnerability is put to great use. “Tomb Raider” may sometimes falter, but it never truly fails because Vikander clearly believes so thoroughly in Lara and her values.  

Despite the cringeworthiness of the final scene’s sequel bait, I cannot deny that I would readily watch a follow-up. With the right script and the right director, a sequel could be a legitimately thrilling action spectacle, because there’s really quite a lot of excellent raw material in “Tomb Raider” that one could build on. It all just needs a little polish.