On paper, Tomb Raider should be a slam-dunk of a movie. It’s based on a long-running and popular video game series, and the premise is basically a female Indiana Jones—a tough adventurer who hunts for ancient artifacts. In 2013, the video games were rebooted to give heroine Lara Croft a bit more of a backstory and a grittier origin, and the rebooted film franchise attempts to follow suit. Unfortunately, Roar Uthaug’s movie is a constant drag, always leaning into the seriousness of the story but rarely finding the joy in the journey. The rebooted video games don’t have the best stories, but they’re serviceable enough when you’re stealthily putting arrows in bad guys’ skulls. Take away the player input, and the result is a movie with a dour personality and not much else.
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) has been in denial about the death of her long lost father Richard (Dominic West), but when she finally goes to sign the papers taking control of her inheritance, she discovers a clue that leads to information about Richard’s disappearance. Partnering with roguish boat captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), Lara eventually finds herself on the island of Yamatai, which is controlled by the brutal Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vogel is desperate to find Himiko, a tomb belonging to a demon queen that could hold great power. Lara must find a way to defeat Vogel and get out alive.
Uthaug goes all in on the “grittier” Tomb Raider, and there are moments where it works to the film’s advantage. We get a chance to know Lara as a character, what she believes, what she fears, and more before we really get to the action. Additionally, when Lara sees a person die for the first time or is forced to take a life for the first time, you can see how it weighs on her, and you really get the benefit of having a talented actress like Vikander in the role. She can convey so much with just a brief facial expression, which is good because the script doesn’t give her much to do beyond being a physical force of nature and getting beat up.
And yet that grittiness eventually leads to a joyless slog where there’s no reprieve or fun to be had from adventure. The humor that features in the first act largely disappears by the time Lara reaches the island, and the character shading for supporting roles like Lu Ren and Vogel evaporates, which is a waste of strong actors like Wu and Goggins. The movie just becomes Lara running through the jungle, getting tossed around, and dealing with her emotional baggage. The game can mitigate all that because it’s fun to be an adventurer, but the movie doesn’t have that option.
There’s no playbook for how to make a movie “fun”, but Tomb Raider is so wedded to its gritty mandate that it smothers out any variance in the personality. The plot is similar to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where a father’s work leads to his child going on adventure right down the booby-trapped cave where the child’s cleverness results in victory (although Indy was never saddled with lines like “It’s a color puzzle!”). But because Tomb Raider loses its sense of humor and wants to play to a semblance of emotional reality, the movie is a chore, and there’s no reconciling its grandiose aspects with the realism it hopes to convey.
When it comes to video games, I really enjoyed the rebooted Tomb Raider and its sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider. The stories aren’t amazing, but they’re good enough to carry along the gameplay of solving puzzles and shooting bad guys. But take out the gameplay and you don’t even have a Twitch stream where there’s at least spontaneity and skill. Instead you have a morose, bland adventure movie that simply falls into the ever-growing pile of bad film adaptations of video games.