Tomb Raider – Review

4 STARS

Director: Roar Uthaug
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Walton Goggins, Dominic West, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi

Since 1996, the Tomb Raider video game franchise has entertained gamers both male and female of all ages (whether appropriate or not). In 2001, Angelina Jolie took on the role of Lara Croft for the character’s first foray into Hollywood. Despite negative reviews it fared well at the box office. The same however could not be said for its 2003 sequel, though critics did feel it was a slight improvement on its predecessor. Cut to fifteen years and a game reboot later and we arrive at 2018’s Tomb Raider, now starring woman-of-the-moment Alicia Vikander as the ever-evolving Lara. After having such a turbulent time in cinema in the past, does Roar Uthaug’s film, based on the first of the rebooted game series, finally score a cinematic hit for the reluctant hero, or is it simply a ’96-sounding ‘no’?

I’m going to start by saying this review may not be quite as objective as my normal reviews. I rarely refer to myself in the first person, however having been an avid Tomb Raider fan for the past seventeen years, it’s something that, rather than avoid, I’ve decided to incorporate into this review. Get ready, because things are about to get personal (and nerdy).

Let’s get some backstory:

My opinion as a 12-year-old was that the Simon West-directed Jolie version of Croft was awesome. I’d dressed in shorts and a vest top to go and see the film – my first 12-rated film, which could not have been more apt – and at home my action figure of her stood proudly next to my video game version (that also had a rather evil looking tiger as part of the set). I’d only been playing the games (via P.C) for two years, but by that point there had been five games – six, if you include a Gameboy release that encouraged me to ask for a Gameboy in the first place – so Lara Croft had already had a few years of exposure (and I was likely just making my way through The Last Revelation [IV] or Chronicles [V]). As you can imagine, the gamers were quite protective of their heroine, so the movie had to be right. Unfortunately, it wasn’t everything fans had hoped it would be. It wasn’t awful (it really wasn’t, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise. Unless it’s in relation to Daniel Craig. That American accent was pitiful), but it wasn’t necessarily what they wanted. I for one was just happy to see my hero onscreen. Jolie took one more outing as Croft in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, which in terms of storytelling was a big step down from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (and I won’t fight anyone on that). And thus exited Jolie from the franchise, probably pursued by a bear.

Jump to 2013 (after another four mainstream games, a Gameboy Advance-only title and a co-op platformer-esque spin-off) and Crystal Dynamics releases its much-anticipated reboot game, Tomb Raider, through Square Enix. It provided more of an origin story for Lara and how she became the kick-ass archaeologist we know and love. The game was a hit and Lara was reborn. For me it wasn’t such a hit – I’m not a huge fan of change when it comes to gaming, so I was a bit disappointed. There wasn’t nearly enough tombs for it to be named ‘Tomb Raider’, in my opinion, but then I’m a hardcore ’96 – ’08 enthusiast. So let’s not get into that. The game was a success, and spawned 2015’s sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider. It didn’t sell quite as well as the first (apparently due in part to Fallout 4 being released at the same time) but it was once again critically acclaimed. And also by this point, pre-production was already underway for the film.

Based on the basic plot of the 2013 rebooted game, Tomb Raider tells the same origin story but with some differences. Lara’s (Vikander) father, Richard Croft (West), has been missing for seven years when the film begins. Refusing to believe he’s dead, she declines any chance to sign papers declaring his death in absentia which would also release her inheritance to her. Instead, she works as a bike courier, indulging in casual ring-based fights and illegal “fox hunting” bike chases across London (is that a thing!?). When she is arrested for a said bike chase, her guardian, Ana (Scott-Thomas) collects her from the police station and encourages her to accept her father’s death. On doing so, she receives a puzzle box left to her by Richard, which contains a hidden key. And so begins an “adventure” to find out what happened to her father and, by chance, save the world.

Whilst the premise is really nothing new, particularly for a Tomb Raider-based film (or game, for that matter), it’s the execution that makes the film stand out of its own accord. Vikander portrays a much more likable Lara than that of the rebooted games or the previous films, and she does a damn good job of it; she’s far more humanised in the sense that she doesn’t already know instinctively how to move or take care of herself when deserted on an island. Adding in the boxing-ring play-fight at the beginning of the film gives us a reason to believe she can defend herself to an extent, but she makes many mistakes and struggles at times to keep her head above water, both literally and figuratively. As a character, this Croft is much more attuned to an audience than previous incarnations, and Vikander was absolutely the perfect casting in both performance and appearance. Without her, this film would have received three stars rather than four. West does a very English job as Richard Croft – he is quite cringe-worthy at times, but that’s the screenplay to blame – as does Scott-Thomas as the rarely-seen Ana. Wu’s Lu Ren is an endearing if weak companion to Lara and doesn’t quite match the strength of any video game counterparts. Goggins makes for a fairly bland antagonist as Mathias Vogel, truth be told, but again I believe that’s down to the screenplay. There was little explanation for why he was doing what he was doing (“I have a family” doesn’t really fly these days) and so the M.O for evil was left rather ambiguous until the end.

Lara’s journey and the characters present in the game are either entirely different or non-existent in the film – without giving too much away, she’s not an archaeologist here (she hasn’t even been to university, at least not yet), she doesn’t have a gang of people wash up on shore with her, and the supernatural elements are given a realistic(ish) grounding (no huge bosses to kill here, I’m afraid). It all adds to a more authentic story that audiences can actually get on board with. Even her reaction to her first kill reminds you of how human she really is. In a game, you expect to see all kinds of unreal things (monsters, surroundings, “lives”), and to leave these core aspects of entertainment out of a movie is brave. But this is a Croft movie. Bravery is everything. And it pays off.

The entire direction and photographing of the film is very reminiscent of the games. If you’ve played any of them you will at times feel like you are back in one of them (pretty much all of them feature a jungle-based level at some point, so take your pick as to which one). Whether it’s an angle on Lara dangling off of a rusty old aeroplane or her trademark ‘ugh’s and ‘ahhs’ when falling or impaled, there’s a lot for the gaming buffs to latch on to (watch out for that pick axe and a certain pair of pistols, along with the year of her mother’s death in the family crypt). It makes for decent enough entertainment but it does draw you out of the cinematic experience a little, which is disappointing. Rather than immerse myself in the story I couldn’t help but imagine the action sequences as though I was controlling Lara. I understand the temptation to link the film to the game like that, but perhaps another degree of separation would have been better. And just a quick special mention for what is actually a pretty epic soundtrack, both score and songs – a positive thing both the games and film have in common.

If I felt like I could be Lara Croft back in 2001, I feel it more so now in 2018. In a time when female-led movies and television shows are starting to become more commercial and regular, this is a good addition to the likes of Wonder Woman and Netflix’s Jessica Jones. As a kid, I never felt it to be extraordinary to have someone like Lara to look up to – it felt normal, perhaps because she appeared in my life at a particularly influential age. It’s only now as an adult that I really understand what it means to look at a fictional character and believe you can be them, or at least emulate them and what they stand for (as much as I’d like to be climbing up cliffs and being chased by tigers, I think I’ll find another vocation). Tomb Raider provides one of the best versions of Lara Croft yet, and my inner 12-year-old is satisfied with that, but as a rebooted franchise it’s got some work to do. A stronger script and a divergence away from the games could do the next instalment the world of good. The film left off with a clear direction into a sequel, which critically will be all to play for. I just hope she doesn’t fall flat on her face.

Also coming soon: a trailer for Lara’s next video game adventure, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, will be released on April 27th. Mark that in your diaries!

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