Once again, with the reboot of “Tomb Raider,” we are reminded that video games are meant to be played not necessarily watched. And with all due respect to the fine writers of blockbuster games, they’re written to enhance the playing experience, not to passively entertain. Playing first, watching is likely the afterthought.
“Tomb Raider (2018)” is an unsophisticated movie that fails to translate the game’s key interactive elements in an engaging, cinematic way.
The story here couldn’t be more clichéd. We meet Lara Croft (Oscar winner Alicia Vikander) as she dukes it out with another tough muscular gal in a private MMA style contest. Spoiler, Lara loses. But after receiving numerous blows, she emerges from the bout clear-headed without a bruise and nary a scratch. After an juicy red apple for energy, off she goes to her day job delivering hot curry on a bike. Why? Because she has rejected her blue-blood upbringing in order to get an education on the dangerous streets of London. Dangerous, that is, if you ride a bike delivering warm samosas and flavorful vindaloo.
Of course, we get a little back-story. Lara’s father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), disappeared years ago. He left to pursue an archeological treasure. Now Lord Croft’s presumed dead, but Lara won’t sign the paperwork that will essentially declare him deceased. The Croft company has been managed for years by the motherly Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), who encourages Lara to take advantage of her fortune. Lara’s mother died when she was very young, although we aren’t given any details to speak of.
After a lackluster introduction that fails to convincingly explain why Lara would live her life as a bike messenger, she discovers her father’s hidden lair. This leads her to Hong Kong in hopes of finding the remote island on which Lord Croft may have met his end. And in Hong Kong, in a contrived “meet-cute” she encounters a drunken sea captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), who agrees to take her to the mysterious island.
A rather pedantic affair, “Tomb Raider” has very little energy. Surprisingly, the talented Vikander lacks much needed charisma in the hero role. This is largely because the story is an odd, uneven mix of fantasy and gritty action. It’s a combination that does not coalesce—the fantasy elements undercut the gritty action sequences. “Tomb Raider” visually looks something like “Jack Reacher” but teases us that it’s protagonist has superhero potential.
For example, once on the island, Lara discovers a group of heavily armed mercenaries led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who is exploiting slave laborers. The slave labor arrangement makes little sense, as the search for a valuable tomb is haphazardly conducted. Skilled paid laborers with high tech gear would likely be more successful and much more interesting.
Instead, the lazy script assembles a faceless group of exploited and hapless souls (of Asian descent), who merely act as expendable plot devices. They get in the way and clumsily take a bullet when a lead actor needs cover. And it isn’t until the 98 pound, white gal joins them that the idea of fighting back comes into the picture.
It’s all a bit ethnocentric 1980s, as the condescending, manipulative screenplay, which is the product of three writers, feels a little exploitative as it tacks on a weak uprising narrative clearly meant to widen the appeal of the film in certain parts of the world. I would rather have seen a few more fully developed characters that have something meaningful to say instead of just the perfunctory collection of sweaty warm bodies.
And the mercenaries also get the formula treatment. They are the most incompetent group of villains on screen in years. While they are armed-to-the-teeth with high-powered machine guns equipped with grenade launchers and scopes, they hold the weapons like they’ve never fired them and can’t seem to hit the broad side of a barn. Of course, at times, they’re gun sights have no problem finding a poor unidentified slave laborer when Lara is on the run. It’s laughable when Lara arms herself with a creaky bow and arrow and is much more accurate than any of the hired gunmen.
Sadly, “Tomb Raider” is no franchise starter. And while Vikander has the acting chops and certainly looks the part, the entire approach is wrong-headed. If “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” has proved anything, keeping the game in the movie can work. And unlike that monster success, “Tomb Raider” is based on an actual video game, with hoards of fans that probably wouldn’t mind seeing some of the gameplay represented directly on the screen.
Let’s face it, the reason the game “Tomb Raider” has been successful over the years is because you play it, not because you passively watch it and engage emotionally in the story-line created around the game elements. “Tomb Raider” is another expensive attempt to translate a video game to the big screen that woefully misses its target.