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.

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