Five minutes into the 2001 video-game adaptation Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the title character (played by Angelina Jolie) takes a luxuriant shower that includes a Flashdance-style hair flip as preparation for her tomb raiding. Five minutes into the 2018 reboot starring Alicia Vikander, Lara has taken part in a punishing boxing match and an electrifying bike-messenger race around the streets of London; the only thing the camera has ogled are her abs. Hollywood has a ways to go in terms of presenting female heroics onscreen, but I suppose you could call that progress.
Though she became a video-game icon in the ’90s, Lara Croft was always an example of the medium’s silliest tendencies, a cartoonishly proportioned, handgun-toting heroine lacking much of a personality beyond, well, a propensity to raid tombs. Simon West’s 2001 adaptation similarly feels like an ancient relic, an innuendo-laden monument to Hollywood shallowness. But the character was rebooted in a 2013 game that made her more grounded and gritty—a choice that Roar Uthaug’s new film apparently draws inspiration from.
This Lara is still an heiress to the fortune of her aristocratic father, Richard (Dominic West), but when she gets put in a sleeper hold by her boxing opponent, she taps out rather than execute some dazzling counter-attack. She hasn’t mastered every cheat code yet—Uthaug wants to communicate that Lara is still learning, still vulnerable, and recognizably human in a way she hasn’t been on screen before. Tomb Raider is a straightforward reboot that does away with most of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo that previously defined the property; as an action movie, it’s competent stuff helped along by a surprisingly magnetic performance at its center.
Vikander, the Oscar-winning Swedish actress from costume dramas like Anna Karenina, Tulip Fever, and The Danish Girl, excels at mixing the sensitive and the steely, best exemplified by her breakout work in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina. Lara Croft is not quite the sex robot she played in that film, but she is a pixelated character who has long existed at the crossroads of gaming and misogyny. Vikander does well to render her as someone more believable: a young woman running away from the life of wealth and privilege that consumed her father (who vanished on a trek to a hidden island years earlier). Eventually, Lara stumbles upon a clue to his ultimate whereabouts and heads to Hong Kong to search for him.
Her dad was on the trail of a mythic Japanese queen named Himiko, who commanded a death cult; unfortunately, the movie (written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons) does not dodge the lazy Orientalism that plagues so many of these games and films that focus on white adventurers plumbing the mysteries of the Far East. Lara wanders around Hong Kong barking questions at every fisherman she sees in English before being robbed by hoodlums at knifepoint; she’s eventually helped by a friendly, hunky boat captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu). The “legend” of Himiko is also kept annoyingly vague, told mostly through ominous wood-cuttings and paintings of a ghostlike Japanese woman presiding over an army of skeletons.
Lara finally does journey to her father’s secret island off the coast of Japan, where she’s greeted by a rival archeologist, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has conscripted dozens of prisoners into an excavation project in search of Himiko’s grave. Lu Ren is quickly captured, probably because Uthaug and company want Lara to take on the bad guys herself, but Tomb Raider is thankfully short of patronizing moments of empowerment. Lara isn’t one to deal out one-liners or take down enemies by wrapping her legs around their neck. Wielding a bow and arrow (and later, a pickaxe), she’s fighting mostly to survive, and survive she does, discovering the legend of Himiko and solving the riddle of her father’s disappearance in the process.
Goggins eschews theatrics as the film’s chief villain, playing Mathias as a sullen profiteer. Meanwhile, Uthaug, who rose to prominence with the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave, tries to keep things realistic almost to a fault, shooting more than one action scene in near-darkness. There are little moments that work well, like Lara letting out an exhausted sob after her first kill (the film fortunately keeps her relatable throughout the intense final act). I also perked up anytime the story revolved around Lara decoding an ancient puzzle, which was far more enthralling than the bow-and-arrow fighting.
Still, Tomb Raider as a whole feels frustratingly by-the-numbers, a video-game reboot that’s been committee-designed to avoid any sexism controversy. Uthaug’s staging of the action is workmanlike but could use more style; the revelation of the Himiko myth never drifts into wild fantasy (don’t expect any walking CGI statues like in the first Tomb Raider movie, or a shark being punched in the nose like in the sequel). Vikander, who can balance flinty charm with sympathetic humanism, helped keep me invested, but Tomb Raider could best be described as a solid step forward, away from past wrongs. I’ll take competence over silliness, but the Lara Croft brand still has a long way to go before her movies are truly memorable.
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