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part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Tomb Raider movie review: raiders of the old movie

Tomb Raider red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…
Another videogame adaptation in which empty avatars run around perfunctorily because that’s what the plot requires of them. There’s no humor, no fizz, no movie magic at all.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for movies about women
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, female coscreenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

Very Indiana Jones. Much Last Crusade.

Except… they forgot the humor. They forgot the fizz. They forgot the verve. They forgot the fun.

Forget any Indy sparkle. This is a movie about old maps and secret tombs and puzzle boxes and exotic travel, and there isn’t even a hint of J. Peterman about it.

Lara wears our Perfect Tank in morose (£495); Adventurer’s Trousers in grim (£1,975); axe, belt, bandages her own.

Lara wears our Perfect Tank in morose (£495); Adventurer’s Trousers in grim (£1,975); axe, belt, bandages her own.

This Tomb Raider movie: it has no personality. At least not in the bits that are all about why anyone would supposedly want to see a movie about videogame character Lara Croft: you know, the adventure, the treasure hunt. There’s a hint of it as we are introduced to Lara (Alicia Vikander: Jason Bourne, Burnt) in the opening sequence of the film: she has eschewed the fortune of her seven-years-missing father, Lord Richard (Dominic West: Testament of Youth, Pride), and is working as a bike courier in London. She’s stubborn and full of angst — she wants to make her own way in the world yet also doesn’t want to admit that her father is dead, which is what would be required for her to take up her inheritance — but she’s also fun and funny, and a bit of a mischievous daredevil. To make a few quick quid, she agrees to be the “fox” in an all-around-east-London bike chase in which she must escape from other reckless bike couriers amidst insane city traffic. It’s a zesty opening gambit full of cheek and excitement.

This is a movie about old maps and secret tombs and puzzle boxes and exotic travel, and there isn’t even a hint of J. Peterman about it.

And the movie will never reach that level of cool or engaging or even mildly interesting again. It’s almost as if the obligation to hew to the plot of the 2013 reboot game — and it doesn’t even hew that closely — unnecessarily hobbled screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons, and Evan Daugherty (Divergent, Snow White and the Huntsman). Or maybe it’s just never a good idea to adapt a videogame for the big screen. (This is also a reboot of the character onscreen; this movie has nothing to do with the two early-2000s Lara Croft movies starring Angelina Jolie.)

At the Croft manse, Lara stumbles upon a hidden office HQ of her dad’s “secret calling”: a quest for the supernatural, one that appears to have taken his life. At least, from the clues he left behind, including a video letter to Lara, it seems as if he disappeared while searching for the final resting place of an ancient Japanese sorceress-queen called Himiko, also known as “the Mother of Death.” He pieced together myth and history to pinpoint the location of her tomb on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Devil’s Sea — a real place, sort of the Pacific’s Bermuda Triangle — and off he went, never to be heard from again.

Lara is off after him.

“You want me to be your sidekick? But... I’m a dude...” (Daniel Wu as Lu Ren)

“You want me to be your sidekick? But… I’m a dude…” (Daniel Wu as Lu Ren)

Much of what follows, in all the important respects, is so similar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that it’s a little embarrassing, and a lot boring. There’s a rival trying to find the tomb, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins: Maze Runner: The Death Cure, The Hateful Eight), and Lara inadvertently hands him what he needs because she brought her dad’s Grail diary– I mean, his Himoko notebook along with her. (Many bits of dialogue from Last Crusade are appropriate to mutter along with Tomb Raider; “I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers” works well here. I don’t know if Tomb Raider realizes this. Maybe it’s meant to create fun? It doesn’t.) There are trials to be endured once inside Himoko’s tomb (“The penitent man… penitent man…”), and yet as puzzles, they are elided over: it’s not even that we don’t get a chance to maybe figure them out for ourselves, though we don’t, more that we simply have no idea what Lara is doing to solve them.

Much of what happens in Tomb Raider is so similar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that it’s a little embarrassing, and a lot boring.

Filling in the empty spaces where the humor and the fun should be is action. A lot of action, much of it of the fisticuffs and gun-battle varieties. Director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) stages these sequences rather perfunctorily, which is odd considering how we saw right at the beginning of the movie, with the “fox hunt,” that he is capable of doing something fresh. It’s nice to see a female character like Lara being strong and physically capable and engaging with a bodily power that we don’t typically get to see women doing onscreen; Vikander may be small, but she’s completely plausible as someone who could hold her own against even a much larger man, though she’s also far from invulnerable. (It’s also great that Uthaug does not shoot Vikander in any way that is fetishized or objectified. But that is — or should be — the baseline for acceptable. He doesn’t get a cookie for that.) But where the fox hunt sequence was as much about her — her personality, her daring — as it was the action, for the rest of the film, most of the action sequences feel like Lara is a videogame avatar running around the island jungle and the tomb… or perhaps simply much more like the usual action-movie meathead.

“Call me ‘That Chick from The Hunger Games’ again. I dare ya...”

“Call me ‘That Chick from The Hunger Games’ again. I dare ya…”

And that may be the biggest problem with Tomb Raider: its protagonist is almost a nonentity. She’s so solemn, so earnest, and so ultimately empty. We have no idea what she believes in, beyond daddy worship, or what she wants, beyond to find daddy. That ties in to how we have no idea what is supposed to be at stake with Himoko’s tomb: Why did Lord Richard embark on an extreme adventure to find it if, he insists, it must never, ever be opened? Why does Vogel’s mysterious employer want it? Everyone seems to be doing what they do merely because that’s what the plot requires, not because it grows out of their characters… though the movie very much wants the latter to be the case. And the plot is just the thing for the characters to be doing.

When I say that Tomb Raider has no magic, I mean that literally, in how the movie wants to have its supernatural intrigue and its realism, too, which is deeply unsatisfying — it is unable to commit to the fantasy it wants to evoke. But I also mean it figuratively: there is no movie magic here. Just a pale imitation of movie magic that’s come before.

Click here for my ranking of this and 2018’s other theatrical releases.

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red light 2 stars

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Tomb Raider (2018) | directed by Roar Uthaug
US/Can release: Mar 16 2018
UK/Ire release: Mar 14 2018

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and for some language
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate violence, threat, injury detail)

viewed in 3D IMAX
viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • AA

    Bummer. Like the games, loved the first Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider (OMG, the soundtrack!), thought the second one had some great adventures (overall needed to present the quest more cohesively). And I really like Alicia Vikander. Hmmm, I might watch it anyway because of the aforementioned, but I generally agree, it is more fun to watch *characters* run through a plot, than basic avatars.

  • Jim Enroughty

    Speaking of the opening sequence, the same thing happened way back in “Superman III”. The movie itself never equaled the creativeness of the opening titles. (You can see it on youtube)

  • Dokeo

    Interesting counterpoint here, focusing on the refreshingly non-male-gazey way the movie treats Lara Croft’s body in the film. But the review includes the line “But that’s all just plot.” So it’s clearly coming from a very different perspective.


  • Dent

    Portal would be an interesting game to adapt. Chell is a neat character if you think of her as this silent weirdo who’s main motivation and drive is solving puzzles designed to kill people for science. Although I think Doug Ratman and his companion cube would make for a more interesting story.

  • Jurgan

    What’s with the daddy issues thing? Why did they do that in both this and the Jolie movie? The original game’s backstory was that Lara’s parents disowned her because they thought a proper lady shouldn’t engage in “adventures.” I’m not saying they have to stick with the game’s plot, but it’s weird that they keep going back to this same well. Though maybe this plot point was in the game reboot also; I wouldn’t know.

    “it’s not even that we don’t get a chance to maybe figure them out for ourselves, though we don’t, more that we simply have no idea what Lara is doing to solve them.”

    That sounds more like Uncharted, where if you take more than a minute on a puzzle Drake opens a diary that has the solution written in it.

  • Jurgan

    I love Portal, but I’m not sure it would make a good movie. A movie adaptation of the backstory could be good, though, especially if J.K. Simmons reprises his role.

  • RogerBW

    Like a fifth-rate romance heroine, Lara Croft the video game character is designed essentially without personality because she’s an avatar for the player. (Not that presumed male players could be expected to inhabit a female character, of course, not in 1996.) This is what you get if you transfer that to the screen. But if a modern scriptwriter does make up an actual personality in a case like this, he (usually he) tends to do a terrible job of it, and you have the embarrassment of the earlier films.

    You can’t win, and the only reason this kind of film gets made is that the video game has made some money and it’s a thing you have to do with a cross-media franchise. It doesn’t matter whether it’s any good, because a significant fraction of the people paying to see it will do so on the basis of the name.

  • Bluejay

    Is Daniel Wu any good in this? I liked him in Into the Badlands, and it’s always nice to see some Asian representation onscreen. Hopefully he’ll find movies that serve him better.

  • I’m absolutely delighted at how Vikander is treated by the film. But that’s nowhere near enough on its own to get a pass from me.

    I noticed this too:

    her completely hairless pits after days in the jungle

    Maybe someday we’ll get to a point where stubble on a woman can be used to indicate a passage of time…

  • He doesn’t have much to do, but he’s fine.

  • Bluejay

    He doesn’t have much to do

    That’s a shame. I just stumbled across this article, in which I learned that he’s apparently a HUGE A-lister in China — a charismatic Asian-American actor more readily appreciated in Asia than in his own country.

    All these diverse actors bursting to the seams with talent, and Hollywood, with its reliable blinders, doesn’t know what to do with them.

  • CB

    I had no problem inhabiting Laura and feeling like I was the bad-ass kung-fu-flipping gun-slinging rock-climbing heroine in 1996, but then again I was stealth-trained to inhabit female video game avatars by Metroid in 1982. :)

  • Dent

    Yeah, learning about the type of world that has a such a surplus of astronauts but absolutely no work for them beyond running through death mazes would be fun.

  • Bluejay

    This interview, with screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet, may be of interest. Apparently all the stuff you thought was missing — the humor, the fun, the supernatural intrigue — was in her initial script, but got largely taken out and rewritten to fit the more “grounded, realistic” vision of the director and Vikander. (It’s amusing that she’s eager to give almost all credit for the film’s final dialogue to her co-screenwriter, as if to wash her hands of it.)


    That fun early draft, though, got Robertson-Dworet hired to write Captain Marvel. So there’s an encouraging sign for that film, at least.

  • A movie can be grounded and realistic and still have a sense of humor and a sense of fun about it.

  • Bluejay

    Yes, of course. That was the reason given, though — as though the director couldn’t figure out how to make room for fun in his “realism.”

  • Michiel Deinema

    McNulty will always be McNulty to me. I kept waiting for Bunk to show up :(

    Tis movie was what I expected of it to be honest; meh in everyway possible.

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