Tomb Raider [2018]

Say what you will about the previous Tomb Raider films, but they made a brilliant casting choice in Angelina Jolie. Already a great, Academy Award-winning actress, Jolie committed absolutely to the role, throwing herself into it physically and emotionally. Best of all, her commanding, megawatt star presence went a long way in carrying the films when they otherwise faltered. (which was often)

So the reboot had its work cut out for it in the casting department. Thankfully, Alicia Vikander turned out to be an excellent choice. While she may lack the sheer overwhelming star power and presence of Jolie at this point, she's just as great an actress, similarly an Oscar winner at a young age and a star on top of it. And she's similarly committed -- practically the first thing Tomb Raider shows off is how ripped she got for the role, gaining 12 pounds of muscle on a tiny frame. Her athletic physicality throughout is impressive. And she's quite good in general; her Lara is more human and down to earth than Jolie's, a move that might have backfired if Vikander wasn't so appealing - clever, charming, and infectiously adventurous. The film also physically emphasizes her strength rather than her sexuality, a welcome change, and is at least a bit more interested in her inner life, an approach that lets Vikander really elevate the proceedings.

Yet like Jolie, she's given a film that just isn't quite worthy of her talent. 

Tomb Raider '18 goes smaller and grittier than its predecessors, which has advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, this approach lets it breath more, taking the time to develop its characters and forge an actual bond with them. Additionally, the violence has some real impact when the characters bleed and hurt. But it also tends to become less weird and memorable, requiring the execution of the plot, character arcs, and smaller-scale action to all hit at a reasonably high level. Tomb Raider puts in the effort for a while, but ultimately falters in all departments.

Since apparently the entire video game takes place on the island, some have remarked that it's strange the film takes 45 minutes to get there, but this part of the film is actually pretty decent. Lara's dedication to refusing her fortune gives her both a strong emotional underpinning and at least a certain amount of character depth: she's willing to struggle to survive, even if, in this case, it's still for largely selfish reasons. But she seems reasonably content in her working-class life, even if it means she has a pretty literal Get Out of Jail Free card. These scenes are also spiked with pretty decent small-scale action scenes that show us Lara's considerable mettle.

When she does get to the island, we're immediately introduced to Walton Goggins' villainous Matthias Vogel. Vogel has been isolated on this island for seven years; he's a father himself, missing his two girls, but stranded here by evil organization Trinity until he finds the McGuffiny goodness. He's also going pretty stir-crazy from being isolated on this island, feeling no connection to the mercenaries he's working with or the locals they've forced into slavery (because of course they have). Goggins' offbeat charisma makes for an intriguing villain who plays off Vikander nicely.

Naturally, Lara escapes, leading to the first big set-piece, as she struggles down a raging river, surviving a waterfall by latching onto a convenient crashed WWII bomber, which, naturally, starts collapsing as soon as she's in it. It's a pretty solid sequence, nicely throwing one danger after another at the tenacious Lara, even if you half-expect "Press X to Grab Ledge" to pop up onscreen.

After this, unfortunately, the film goes into decline. It spends a lot more time on the obligatory Reconciliation With the FatherTM than the first Jolie film, but oddly to less effect. The father/daughter relationship is never particularly compelling or dynamic, playing out in pretty standard terms. It's not bad, but there's not much there for all the time the film spends on it. 

Lara's ally, Daniel Wu's Lu Ren, starts off as an engaging sidekick, but is virtually abandoned in the back half of the film; occasionally it cuts back to him to remind us that he's hanging around, waiting to rescue Lara, which is all he does for the last 40 minutes. When he finally does spring into very brief action, it's been telegraphed so long that it doesn't have any real impact. Another interesting start that runs aground.

Vogel, too, for all the setup and Goggins' unique screen presence, doesn't really go anywhere as a character. The initially interesting build-up only pays off in standard villain ways. Nor are any of these henchman fleshed out; it's unclear how they feel about a leader who vocally thinks they're not worth his intellectual time, and while the actors try to sneak bits of personality into the line or two a few of them are given, there's just nothing there.

And it's not like the plot has much going on. It's just a basic origin story, better paced than most, but driven by a video game plot - just connective tissue to get you from level to level. Richard Croft has apparently gone from obsessed with finding the Tomb of the McGuffin to doing everything to stop Trinity without any real explanation; he keeps insisting that millions will die, but when they actually break in, he clearly doesn't know what's going to be inside beyond a vague sense that it'll be deadly. The actual idea here is interesting - Richard's belief in the supernatural contrasted against Lara's indifference - but it doesn't draw much out of it. 

Similarly, there's an interesting idea regarding the McGuffin itself. An early flashback has Lara practicing archery with an apple as a target. Her father makes a comment about her trying to be William Tell, to which she responds that he's a myth. He responds that there is often a core of truth in a myth. This is reflected in the climax when the figure of death turns out to be the corpse of an immune carrier of a zombie virus. So it's less supernatural a finish than, say, the time-traveling fantasy-pyramid race at the end of the first film, or any Indiana Jones picture, which is arguably an interesting twist. It doesn't really hit, though, partly because everything around it is fairly bland, partly because the mystical nature isn't built up with any real effectiveness, and partly because the zombie virus is just supernatural enough that it feels like the worst of both worlds -- too supernatural to work as the realistic core of a myth, too small-scale a supernatural element to be interesting in itself. Interesting idea, though.

(Sidenote - technically, William Tell was a crossbowman, not an archer. Richard, at least, should know that.)

This thin video game storytelling might have been okay if the action was sufficiently exciting; unfortunately, after that river/bomber centerpiece, the action degenerates into forgettable mediocrity. There's no strong sense of geography, or rhythm, or the number of mercs working for Vogel. As an action movie, it would be a passable DTV release, nothing more. This is particularly disappointing given its' provenance; the Jolie films had plenty of flaws of their own, but they did deliver some pretty cool action and stunts.

It really doesn't help that after the anemic climax, the film drags through an extended epilogue (which it interrupts with the belated title card, thus killing what little momentum it has!), which goes on so long, with a big twist and an infuriating tease of a final scene, that you almost think it's launching into a gratuitous fourth act! This turns out to just be uninspiring sequel setup that takes far too long to not pay off. It makes an already so-so film even duller in its final reel.

This prominent trailer shot? The last shot of the movie.

Still, I'm inclined to forgive any of director Roar Uthang's missteps because the man is named ROAR UTHANG. Partly respect for how cool it is, and partly because that name is a Basil the Bulgar Slayer or Admiral Sir Manley Power level of do not mess with the this man. At any rate, I've heard his previous film, The Wave, is quite good, and I'm willing to give him some slack and assume heavy-handed studio interference diluted his vision. After all, even John Woo had to take a couple cracks at Hollywood before delivering Face/Off.

At any rate, the newest incarnation of Tomb Raiders avoids being actually bad at the expense of being interesting. Vikander kicks ass, though, and hopefully future action outings will be worthy of her.



Producer: Graham King
Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for violence and profanity.

Budget: $95 million

Box Office: Domestically, it's going to top out at an uninspiring $60 million, but it's over $200 million internationally already, so a follow-up may not be far behind.