Another year, another attempt to finally make good on the promise of a decent video game movie. Strong competitors have come before, boasting AAA budgets and recognizable names both in front of and behind the camera, but all have disappointed on some level. Stepping up to the plate for 2018 is Tomb Raider, which serves as both a reboot of the hysterical Angelina Jolie films and a quasi-adaptation of the Crystal Dynamics series of games.
So how does Tomb Raider fare on the spectrum of game-to-film projects? On that scale, it’s among the better examples as it would almost be enjoyable without any previous knowledge of the franchise. However, as a film unto itself, it leaves a great deal to be desired.
The story follows Lara Croft (obviously), a bright young woman still reeling from her father’s mysterious disappearance seven years earlier. He, it would seem, stumbled across an extremely old supernatural power and an unpleasant “secret ancient military force” bent on utilizing it to destroy the world. It now falls to Lara and a drunk sailor to… not really do much of anything.
Herein lies Tomb Raider’s most noticeable problem: none of its characters want to be there, and few have any actual reason to be. The villain, who is named Mathias Vogel because he’s a villain, just wants to go home. He has no interest in ancient magic or solving puzzles, he’s just got a shit job and wants to see his family. This doesn’t make for a particularly compelling foil to Lara, and more troublingly it gels rather poorly with the moments where he does obligatory brutal bad guy things. Similarly, Lu Ren, the aforementioned drunken sailor, is only along for the ride because his father disappeared at the same time as Lara’s.
And what of Lara Croft, heroine extraordinaire? Her entire character, motivation, and backstory are the result of truly crippling daddy issues. She has no thirst for adventure, no daring streak, no drive to solve a puzzle that has been long lost to history; you know, the things that Lara Croft has always been known for. No, here she yearns only to find her dad. She raids no tombs and figures out only one ancient puzzle, and even then it’s because of her father.
The thing that tends to make characters like Nathan Drake, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft fun to watch is that no matter the circumstances surrounding the raiding of a lost ark or a tomb, they seem to be deriving some kind of enjoyment from the act. Instead, the filmmakers decided to take the struggle for survival from the Crystal Dynamics game (as well as her odd relationship the mentor character), and make that the crux of the experience this time around. In civilization, Lara is witty and clever, but the minute the action kicks in, she becomes a miserable grunting bore.
This isn’t to say that Alicia Vikander does a poor job playing her, though. In fact, the script occasionally allows her to hint at the fact that she’s really quite an excellent actress, but more often than not it’s giving her painfully overplayed lines like “you messed with the wrong family,” or simply refusing to allow her to speak at all. All other performances are functional at best and aren’t worth the effort to discuss in any depth.
Another glaring issue (and one that has been present since the earliest trailers) is that of the astoundingly shoddy GCI. It’s actually kind of incredible that anybody watched the finished scenes and signed off on them, that is, of course, assuming that this person possessed functional eyes. Raging rivers have the look of a pleasant wave pool directly surrounding Lara, and the more tumultuous areas are lit completely differently, leaving little in the way of immersion. Every green screen is maddeningly apparent, and a few of the more jarring shots elicited laughs from the audience.
It should be noted, however, that the filmmakers did quite a remarkable job of matching the aesthetic of the newest Tomb Raider games. Vikander looks strikingly similar to her digital doppelganger, and many of the action sequences feel like they were directly inspired by gameplay. Additionally, there are a couple of neat little easter eggs included for fans of the games.
The plot itself starts out promising but quickly devolves into generic adventure babble, and eventually becomes complete nonsense. In order to properly illustrate this, I will briefly dip into spoilers.
Lara’s father is not, in fact, dead. He is simply hiding out on the island (looking like Robin Williams from Jumanji), which is now under the control of a secret organization called Trilogy, which is after the body of an ancient queen for some reason. As it turns out, this queen is a carrier for a rare disease that turns you into a veiny zombie. Yes, this Tomb Raider movie, set in the real world, is about trying to stop a villainous conspiracy cult from starting a zombie apocalypse. Incredible.
It may be redundant, but it seems clear at this point that the issue with games being adapted to film lies in the writing, and the fact that the game developers usually have a great deal of influence over the shape that the final product will take. Naturally, they want the film to bolster excitement for their brand, and as such, it should bear the game on which it’s based more than a passing resemblance.
The unintended byproduct of this is the restriction of creativity to fit into a corporate mold. Writers are not permitted to take risks, and the film essentially becomes a very expensive commercial. Combining this with the fact that many Hollywood higher-ups still view games as low art, and a financial and critical response rate so stained that not even Clorox could save it, and you have a recipe for repeated disaster.
And so, the search for a great video game movie continues. Nevertheless, even after everything I’ve said up to this point, Tomb Raider is still profoundly watchable. The first twenty minutes or so are thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly stylish, and if you have the stomach for idiotic plots and bland characters, then there’s enough action to keep you awake, and probably entertained. Then again, if you prefer films for which the term “watchable” is not high praise, then perhaps it’s best to stay away.