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Tomb Raider (2018)

I have some fond memories of “Tomb Raider” and its sequel back in the late ’90s. My dad and I would play the games together, working to solve the puzzles and so on. There was even a time when we got to be part of a test audience for the upcoming 2001 Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film. I went to school bragging about the experience the next day, but all anyone ever wanted to know about was Angelina Jolie. Teenagers.

My prime gaming days are long behind me, but I have been keeping an eye on the rise and fall of Lara Croft in the time since. It’s really quite pathetic how the gameplay didn’t age well, and attempts to make Lara’s appearance consistent with archaic graphics technology looked outright cartoonish. It was a shame, considering how badly we need more independent female protagonists of brains and strength, especially in an industry so male-dominated as that of video games.

Lara needed a fresh start, thus the franchise was completely rebooted in 2013. I’m sure it wasn’t a coincidence that a film adaptation loosely based on the game was put into development at roughly the same time. In any case, Square Enix is clearly doing their best to re-establish Lara Croft as a household name and a powerhouse among feminist action heroes. It’s certainly a noble objective, and I’d say that they absolutely succeeded in making Tomb Raider (2018) the best game-to-film adaptation in history. Though that’s very faint praise nonetheless.

When we first meet Lara (as portrayed by Alicia Vikander), she’s living on the streets of London, working as a lowly bike courier, taking up illegal street races to make extra cash because she can’t pay her bills. It’s enough to show that Lara has a mean competitive streak, and she’s tough as nails even if she’s not invincible. But wasn’t Lara supposed to be super-rich? Actually, no — her father was. And Lara can only inherit the money if her father is dead. So if she agrees to accept the money… well, that means she has to admit that her father really is dead and not merely missing after seven years gone.

I have to admit, it’s a nicely poignant touch. Sure, it’s stupid and short-sighted, considering that Lara could simply take hold of her father’s estate and keep it for him instead of letting it get sold off piecemeal. But it’s nonetheless a sweet little touch, and it says a lot about Lara that she doesn’t really need her family’s fortune to be an extraordinary woman.

Anyway, to make a long story short, a new discovery leads our heroine to discover where her dad went. It turns out that in his grief for Lara’s dead mother, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) went looking for some supernatural means of communicating with her and/or bringing her back. What’s even crazier is that he may have actually found something: The buried corpse of Himiko, a mythical queen said to have power over life and death. So Richard went off to this speck of an island surrounded by the most dangerous waters in the Pacific Ocean, trying to get to Himiko’s tomb before her terrible power can fall into the wrong hands.

(Side note: Yes, the story for this movie called “Tomb Raider” literally revolves around efforts to raid a tomb. It’s amazing how rare that is in this franchise.)

Unfortunately, by going out to this island with her dad’s notes, Lara has inadvertently given the bad guys exactly what they needed all along. What makes it even worse is that she did this even though her dad left behind a message explicitly telling her to destroy all of his notes on Himiko so they wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands and this exact thing wouldn’t happen. Sadly, this will not be the last time Lara makes a boneheaded move, playing into the villain’s plan when she knows better, just because the plot needs her to.

Speaking of which, our villain for the film is Mathias Vogel, played by Walter Goggins. He was sent to this island on behalf of some shadowy cabal, forbidden from rejoining society until he finds and acquires the corpse of Himiko. To date, Mathias has spent seven years on this island, and it’s driven him so batshit insane that he’ll do anything to get off the island and go back to his own two daughters. It’s a solid enough motivation, especially with Goggins’ performance to back it up. It’s really quite compelling how Goggins dials back his trademark unhinged screen presence to deliver a villain who can be charismatic before he spins on a dime and does something monstrous. There’s a desperation to the character that works surprisingly well… right up until the climax.

Vogel’s motivations may be compelling, but they’re not enough to justify the stupid, reckless, short-sighted, dangerous choices he makes in the climax. Right before our eyes, we see the character devolve into a one-dimensional bad guy who acts in accordance with the plot when he should damn well know better, and it’s such a disappointment. This will not be the last time I gripe about the climax of this film.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we have Daniel Wu in the role of Lu Ren. He’s the son of a different Lu Ren, who went missing with Richard Croft, so Lu Ren Jr. and Lara Croft sail out together in search of their missing fathers. But not before a contrast to show that Lu Ren has moved on and accepted his father’s apparent passing while Lara has not. This might have been a fascinating character dynamic and a compelling thematic angle… except that it only lasts for one scene and it’s chucked out the window as soon as they sail out together. After that, Lu Ren is stuck with a thankless job as the male lead opposite Lara fucking Croft. Doing anything memorable with this role without overshadowing the protagonist was always going to be an uphill climb, and it’s not like Wu completely humiliates himself, but he didn’t have the talent or the material to be anything better than “okay.”

And then of course we have Dominic West as Richard Croft. He does a perfectly fine job. The Richard/Lara relationship is truly the centerpiece of the movie, and the two actors totally sell it.

In case it isn’t immediately obvious, fathers and children are a huge recurring theme throughout the picture. It’s a sweet thematic hook to hang the story on, and it provides this high action/adventure with some much-needed heart. Unfortunately, it does stick a lot of our characters with persistent cloying daddy issues. What’s worse, the film gets more heavy-handed on the subject as it runs out of new and creative ways to explore it.

Another prominent topic is the discussion of myth versus reality. For example, we understand at the outset that this Queen Himiko was an undead abomination whose curse could bring humanity to extinction if her tomb was ever opened. But then one character flat-out says that Queen Himiko’s corpse is just a pile of dusty old bones and asks what’s the worst that could happen if the villains got hold of it. And I started to wonder if the filmmakers really wanted to pull on that particular thread. After all, if there’s even the faintest possibility that Himiko’s curse is a myth created by exaggerations throughout history, then it means there was no decent reason to bury Himiko in so deep and desolate a place surrounded by elaborate booby traps, the antagonists spent a decade’s worth of blood and treasure getting to it, and Richard Croft abandoned his daughter and his business without a word, prompting Lara to risk life and limb getting him back… all for nothing. Put simply, Himiko has to be the magical and legendary destroyer of worlds because the whole damn plot would fall apart if she wasn’t.

But that’s not what the filmmakers do.

See, this iteration of the franchise — in the games and movies alike — was sculpted from the “Uncharted” mold, built with a more gritty and mundane focus. And to be entirely clear, it does make the action scenes far more thrilling. Lara may have the inexplicable talent to get a dozen different types of shit beaten out of her and miraculously not die, but there’s a neatly visceral thrill in watching Lara get put through her paces and fight like hell to survive. Even if Lara should seriously be dead or dying after all the abuse she endures, she still visibly hurts with every impact, and it’s made obvious that she’s no superwoman — she has to earn her survival, which makes it all the more satisfying to watch her pull through. It makes the action sequences a lot more compelling, even if we know that Lara will be all right when all’s said and done.

Oh, and also: We get a fight scene in which Lara Croft straight-up punches a guy in the crotch. That should be a recurring thing in all the games and movies. I’m amazed it isn’t already.

That said, director Roar Uthaug cannot shoot nighttime action scenes for shit. The shipwreck sequence at the halfway point is so dark and so frenetic, lit with unpredictable flashes of lightning, that it’s totally incomprehensible. Ditto for a big fight sequence that Lara has at night. Even during some of the daytime sequences, there are editing choices so baffling that they crush the momentum. And in a chase sequence, losing momentum is a capital offense.

But let’s get back to the balance of fantasy versus reality. To be fair, there are huge chunks in which the movie successfully balances high adventure and grounded reality. A great example is in the use of holdovers from the video games — intricate puzzles and even an honest-to-god stealth mission are integrated into the movie. And they’re done in such a way that they feel less like tacked-on contrivances and more like honest-to-god elements of a cracking adventure film. Also, when we finally learn the truth about Himiko’s curse, it blends fact and fiction together in a way that’s seriously quite clever.

The downside, of course, is that this is “Tomb Raider”. The franchise that opened with Lara Croft gunning down velociraptors on her way to Atlantis. I know that “gritty reboots” are still the fashion right now, and I did just say that the more mundane approach has its advantages in terms of character development and visceral action. But at the same time, this source material is inescapably ludicrous in a fantastic way that’s satisfying in its own right. Either approach can work perfectly well, but only if the filmmakers commit. Holding back and half-measures will only get you so far.

Which brings us back to the climax.

The minute our characters finally enter Himiko’s tomb (which was built to keep this apocalyptic evil at bay, yet still opens from the outside for some reason, but whatever), it’s like we’re entering another world entirely. This wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, if the film’s delicate reality/fantasy balance didn’t get shot to hell as a direct result. It certainly didn’t help that the filmmakers shamelessly lifted their booby traps directly from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but somehow even sillier. I was talking earlier about how the filmmakers integrated video game elements into this movie so gracefully — in the climax, somebody actually utters the phrase “It’s a color puzzle!” and I strained to keep myself from facepalming.

Moreover, I was talking earlier about how the filmmakers gave Himiko a “curse” that makes sense in a rational way. The problem is, we’re in an underground crypt that somehow seems to be floating above a bottomless void, and the flying death traps are all still in perfect working order after so many thousands of years. Where’s the sense in pretending that any of this has any kind of non-magical basis? If you’re going to go this “fantasy” route, then fucking go there. Commit.

Then there’s the big shadowy organization that hired Vogel, presumably giving us our overarching franchise Big Bad. I couldn’t care less. Maybe the games can offer some legitimate reason for why a Spectre knockoff is terrifying and dangerous enough to keep us interested in future sequels, but the movies offer nothing. Unless this organization is led by a mob boss who’s going to kill himself with a magical dagger to be resurrected as a giant motherfucking dragon, I’m not especially interested.

All of that said, I can honestly say that I had a fun time with Tomb Raider (2018) in spite of its many glaring flaws. The action scenes — with one or two exceptions — were very satisfying, and I honestly loved how puzzles and stealth missions enhanced the overall movie without coming off as distractions. The movie doesn’t really fall apart until the climax, and even then, it’s nothing more than brainless and derivative. And in the first entry of a CGI blockbuster tentpole franchise, there are worse things.

I credit Walter Goggins — and Dominic West, to a lesser extent — for holding so much of the movie together, but Alicia Vikander is easily the most important reason why the film works as well as it does. She totally succeeded in taking this iconic role and making it her own, bringing us a Lara Croft we can all be proud of. If we end up getting a sequel, she’s the reason I’ll be there to see it. But as for this movie? I’d say it evens out to a solid DVD or second-run recommendation.

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