It's been said before here at Shacknews that there are pitfalls to creating modern video game movie adaptations. Straying away too far from the source material is frustrating from a fan standpoint. However, living in a world of expensively produced video game adventures with robust stories, there's also a peril in staying too close to that source material. Tomb Raider is an example of the latter, but that's not its biggest issue. Its biggest problem is that it takes the Tomb Raider story that fans have become familiar with and sucks a lot of the fun out of it.
Like the rebooted games, Tomb Raider focuses on a younger Lara Croft, played by Alicia Vikander. She isn't a skilled adventurer and archaeologist, but a young adult adjusting to her father's disappearance. Refusing to accept his death, she soon discovers the site where he was last seen. This leads to a journey to the island of Yamatai, home of the ancient Japanese Queen Himiko.
It's on this island where she discovers the villainous organization Trinity, who are searching for Himiko's tomb for their own nefarious goals... which are never made entirely clear. It probably ends with taking over the world or something. They're led by Matthias Vogel, played by Walton Goggins. Vogel's single-mindedness and creepy delivery make him a decent villain, but like the rest of Trinity, his role isn't clearly defined. He makes it known that he doesn't believe in the occult, yet there he is trying to break into Himiko's tomb, because reasons.
It isn't until the third act that the Tomb Raider action starts to kick into high gear and the sequences inside of Himiko's tomb are reminiscent of the puzzles and traps that one would find in any of the games. Unfortunately, it's the pacing that doesn't quite work here, with most of the sequences dragging on too long while devoid of any real drama. The action isn't this movie's high point, with one big exception. The climactic scene that sees Lara pick up her red pickaxe, which has become a staple of the rebooted games, is easily the movie's best scene and perfectly captures the atmosphere of the games while also working from a film context.
Characterization isn't exactly Tomb Raider's strong point, either. On top of the villains feeling clichéd, the supporting cast doesn't quite work, either. In particular, there's Lara's boat captain friend Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu. There's about five minutes dedicated to his back story, where the loss of his father led to his alcoholism until he relates to Lara's plight and reluctantly decides to guide her to Yamatai. Lu Ren is then treated as an afterthought, playing no real consequential role going forward. Brief cuts to him later in the story are seemingly meant to remind everyone that this is a person who still exists.
On the subject of characterization, let's talk about Lara herself. The problem is more than how she's able to almost instantly go from a helpless young woman who is in way over her head to remorselessly plowing through nameless bad guys with a bow and arrow. Although that is a big problem and re-raises what felt like an age-old complaint from the Weekend Confirmed days, that being that Lara taking a life feels like it doesn't carry any emotional weight. It's also that she's so prone to make bad decisions or throw out any semblance of common sense. Yes, without some of those choices there is no movie, but a movie's plot shouldn't need to move forward by making its lead character look dumb. That makes it harder to root for that character.
Beyond that, her character feels almost joyless. As imperfect as the Angelina Jolie movies were, at least that Lara Croft reveled in their plots' inherent silliness. Those movies knew who Lara Croft was and what they wanted her to be. By contrast, this Tomb Raider fluctuates between Lara Croft as a capable fighter, a frightened little girl, a killer warrior, an emotional wreck, and a hardened archaeologist. There's little consistency throughout the movie, made all the more infuriating by a post-credits sequence (which won't be spoiled here) that will make viewers wonder how this movie possibly got to that point.
There's been a lot of discussion of what isn't Tomb Raider's strong point, but the movie does have one in its lead actress. Despite how Lara Croft is inconsistently presented, Alicia Vikander runs with this role like a champ. That aforementioned climax will convince viewers that she can be a truly great Lara Croft.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie falls into the great trap of modern video game adaptations. Tomb Raider is nothing that fans of the rebooted games haven't already seen and there's nothing really fun or engaging enough to draw in those non-gaming fans.
Tomb Raider opens in theaters on March 16. This movie review is based on an advanced screening provided by Square Enix and Warner Bros. Pictures. The movie is rated PG-13.