Tomb Raider is a superior genre specimen

March 16, 2018

from Indy Week

Tomb Raider
★★★ ½

In 2013, the venerable Tomb Raider video game franchise unveiled its tenth installment in the series, a complete reboot/origin story with a new emphasis on gritty realism and emotional stakes. The new game was clearly designed to retire the persona of the old Lara Croft—a stone-cold fox with cartoonish female proportions—and introduce the new Lara as a likable and vulnerable rookie archaeologist.

It worked. Tomb Raider was one of the best games of 2013, with a storytelling strategy that encouraged players to empathize and identify with young Lara. The back story was solid and the cinematic cut scenes were visceral and gritty. When Lara is forced to kill her first mercenary goon, she actually throws up.

The new Tomb Raider movie, based on that 2013 game, includes a similar scene, and it’s a perfect indicator of the film’s determination to reinvent the Lara Croft character for the silver screen. As played by the formidable Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Lara is no longer the sexy, icy killer of the Angelina Jolie movies. She’s young and inexperienced; tough and resourceful. She’s funny, too, and the filmmakers have a good time playing with the de rigueur video game tropes that longtime franchise fans will appreciate—watch out for those exploding red barrels!

The film follows the basic story of the 2013 game, in which young Lara travels to a remote tropical island to investigate the fate of her father, the famed explorer, played here by Dominic West. Before that, though, we get a series of well-crafted scenes that establish Lara’s re-imagined background as a ridiculously fit and slightly punked-out bike messenger. Watch for a nice chase scene in London, and an even nicer chase scene in Hong Kong harbor.

Teaming up with drunken sailor Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), Lara commences to tomb raiding. The standard-issue plot hits all the requisite touchstones: an evil corporate conspiracy, endless gun-toting goons, an ancient curse, and an unhinged villain (Walter Goggins). Norwegian director Roar Uthaug stages several thrilling action sequences, including a fantastic literal cliffhanger concerning a hundred-foot waterfall, a rusted-out airplane, and relentless nature of gravity.

Word is that Vikander performed many of the stunts herself and trained for months to develop Lara’s strength and athleticism. It shows. As with the video game, we’re encouraged to contemplate the pure physical trauma that Lara endures, what with all the climbing and the falling and the cliffhanging. While we get a lot of lingering images of Vikaner’s hard body, there’s a conspicuous absence of any attempt to sexualize Lara. That feels like a very deliberate choice, and a good one, considering the character’s dubious history as a 1990s nerd-fantasy pinup girl.

In its best moments, most of which come in the film’s first half, Tomb Raider is a superior genre specimen, conjuring the thrills and goofy charm of the Indiana Jones movies. (The good ones.) In its weaker elements—including the climax, alas—Tomb Raider is just a B-minus riff on the action-adventure template.

Vikander’s winning lead performance makes all the difference. She plays it straight with the script’s dramatic elements—there’s no winking or condescension. I think that’s the more interesting choice. People make fun of video game movies, but the character of Lara Croft is as compelling as any of the heroes we get in these kinds of pulpy serial adventure stories. More than most, actually. Compare Tomb Raider to Tom Cruise and last year’s dead-tired reboot of The Mummy, and the choice is clear.

As a studio franchise installment, Tomb Raider is a lot better than it’s strictly obligated to be. It’s good to see Lara Croft back in action.

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