In video games, the cut scenes that occur in between the shooty, punchy, player driven moments, are traditionally the moments that character development is delivered. They’re the context sensitive elements that help make you care and understand why you’re mowing down endless swaths of nameless goons. If the story is no good, then players will mash that X button to get back to ending the futures of digital nobodies. On the flipside of this, if the mechanics of the game disappoint, or there’s too many time filling levels thrown into the mix (a dreaded turret section for example), then it’s all a wash.
Tomb Raider is a bit of both worlds. At its core, with Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, this is a mishmash of scenes you wish you could skip, and generic moments you wish were excised. In between these moments is a genuinely solid action flick with a central character who is exciting to watch.
Coming off like a filmed version of a William Goldman fake ‘how to write a script’ script, Tomb Raider begins with a half hour of tedious, and unnecessary, build-up to the main event. Starting in London, a smorgasbord of irrelevant narrative threads kick off – a bike race that looks good, but adds little to the mix, as does a throwaway kitchen hand who may have a crush on Lara – inevitably adding little and going nowhere. Sure, it’s easy to see why these scenes exist (green painted set dressing for Lara Croft’s history), but instead of helping inform the plot, they just show the viewer that director Roar Uthaug is less adept at crafting the cut scenes than he is at manoeuvring the action you paid to come see. To carry on the trademarked video game analogy, these are the elements that would usually be relegated to in game collectable audio recordings that the player diligently picks up on their path to get a worthless digital reward, but never actually listen to.
So, to the plot of Tomb Raider for just a moment – Lara Croft’s Dad has been missing for seven years (in case you forget this fact, characters will take every opportunity to remind each other that it’s been seven years since he’s been gone), and Lara gets some information regarding his whereabouts. Off she trundles to Asia where she plans on finding a boat and its captain, Lu Ren (a criminally underused Daniel Wu), to take her to a mysterious island. Bad things in the shape of Walton Goggins’ villainous Mathias Vogel occur. Shooty, punchy stuff happens. A tomb is raided. And then the credits roll with whatever the 2010’s version of Evanescence is playing over the top of them.
Roar Uthaug previously helmed The Wave, a visually impressive disaster flick, so when Tomb Raider’s first heavily CGI assisted action sequence crashes unexpectedly in the night, it does so with aplomb. Lu Ren’s rusted out ship is no match for a raging storm and hidden rocks, and Uthaug shows us the devastation of the shipwreck in all its glory. He also takes this opportunity to make sly nods to the video game roots of Lara Croft, with regular tropes popping up. Lara tries to escape through a room – but no! Thwarted by a falling bookcase! Later, rusted ladder just happens to drop in front of her as she’s about to escape – the spotty, white paint glimmering in the moonlight signifying to the player Lara Croft that this is the path to safety. Uthaug excels at the art of spectacle, it’s the human aspect of said spectacle that falls short.
The standout sequence that exists to politely request that, ‘hey, please watch me on the big screen’, has Lara – hands tied – escaping an army of goons and tumbling into a ravine where raging rapids roar towards a mammoth waterfall. Lara struggles to get free of her restraints as she is whisked down the river, only to find safety with a luckily positioned rusted out air plane. Where the sequence goes from here is an ever escalating case of out of the frying pan and into the fire, and is one that carries a real impact. This is mostly thanks to the terrific work from Alicia Vikander. There’s a reason she’s an Academy Award winner. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that video game movie adaptations have been fairly average for a long time, and while Tomb Raider doesn’t do much to buck the trend, at least Vikander is in there injecting as much genuine acting to the role as possible. Sure, peripheral characters move along in their rote, run of the mill expected way, with Walton Goggins and Dominic West doing their best at scenery chewing (so much so that I’m certain Goggins was habitually ripping leaves off trees in between takes), but Vikander’s the title role, and it’s on her shoulders that this seemingly inevitable franchise will have legs.
2013’s Tomb Raider game reboot became a bellwether for depicting the results of violence authentically. The extreme deaths that befell Lara when the player failed to save her from a rock crushing her head, or from a branch sticking out at neck height, or from a brutish, heavy thug managing to get the better of her, had an immense impact on the player. It also had a superb female friendship, and a brilliant array of side characters – but more on that in a bit. The in game violence worked to show how desperate the situation Lara was in – it added a level of realism that never felt gratuitous, and in turn made the player work harder to keep Lara safe and alive for fear of seeing her twitching body on the end of a spike one more time. While it’s not possible to show the same level of violence and gore in a film where the key aim is to have the main character alive at the end, Uthaug and co. certainly go out of their way to ensure that Lara is left bruised and battered. Cuts and wounds have a lasting impact and don’t magically disappear in between scenes. There is no magical elixir that heals all wounds.
One of the standout moments of the 2013 game was Lara’s first kill – it’s unexpected for her, and is a genuine ‘fight for your life’ moment, with the goons death being shown in all its necessary bloody reality. Lara’s reaction is devastating, she never wanted to kill someone, and being thrown into that situation was a difficult, damning thing for her to do. The film version of this situation is slightly less impactful, but no less devastating. Lara fends for her life in the middle of the forest, painfully dispatching the thug in a dirty, brutal fight. For a basic action adventure film, throwing in a dark moment of reality is notable. Less notable is the absence of contemplation or reaction after the kill occurs. Seconds after the man is dead, Lara sees a hooded figure watching her from behind a tree. The figure legs it, and Lara follows suit, seemingly leaving the notion that she just killed a man behind.
And here we’re presented with the biggest problem in Tomb Raider. See, instead of being a budding, young archaeology graduate, Lara instead decides she’s going to forge a life for herself, made by her own decisions, and not ones that have been prescribed for her by her long missing father. This is an interesting take on Lara, and one that almost works within the context of the film. But, its existence means eschewing what made the Tomb Raider game reboot work so well. Lara wasn’t blindly heading off to an island in the middle of nowhere unequipped, she was joined by an experienced crew made up of a mechanic who is also a single mother, a wide array of other technically accomplished folks, and most importantly, Lara’s close friend, Sam.
Sam is nowhere to be found in this filmic adaptation. Nope. Instead of Lara being a keen archaeologist, she is friendless and bundled with a bunch of Dad issues. But fear not! If you thought that maybe she was alone with her Dad issues, she’s joined by Lu Ren’s Dad issues. Even nefarious Mathias Vogel has Dad issues as well! Either, Dads are missing, or Dads have been killed, or Dads are kept away from their kids because the nefarious organisation they work for keeps them away for years on end.
Woe is them.
On top of this, the possible ‘friends’ that Lara could have are poorly written, or simply edited out of existence. Daniel Wu’s Lu Ren has a moment or two to shine, but once the last third of the film begins, he’s mostly forgotten about. Wu certainly has charisma and has a great screen presence, so his mostly forgetful character is unfortunate. But not as unfortunate as Hannah John-Kamen’s Sophie, someone who (on paper at least) is supposed to be Lara’s closest friend. Sure, this is a film that’s about Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, but to help build Lara as a fully realised character, she needs supporting characters to boost her up. John-Kamen’s Sophie could have been that, but she is instead forgotten quickly.
So, it’s two steps forward and three steps backwards. Yes, Lara wants to stand on her own two feet, not having to rely on her father’s legacy to keep her going. But does she have to do so by sacrificing what made the rebooted game great? When women action heroes are shown on screen, they’re often presented as lone warriors, having to do it tough by themselves. Think of literally the only two consistent, financially successful modern action hero series with women at the charge (Resident Evil and Underworld) and you’ll find that they’re buddy-less, almost emotionless heroines. Wahoo. Lara Croft is (crudely) the female Indiana Jones – a character who is eternally bundled with memorable sidekicks and pals. So, why discard a great array of supporting characters for a daddy issue theme that feels tired, empty and repetitive?
One has to wonder why the games writers, Rhianna Pratchett and Susan O’Connor, weren’t tapped on the shoulder to adapt their superb work to the screen? The script by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons is fine, ticking the boxes it needs to tick to get the memorable moments of the game out of the way, while injecting just enough ‘character development’ for the seasoned actors to hang something on. Yet, Rhianna Pratchett has forged a career based on creating great, powerful women characters (Heavenly Sword, BioShock Infinite and Mirror’s Edge in particular), and no doubt her voice would have helped establish Lara Croft as a powerful heroine. If video game films are actually going to be successful and worthwhile adaptations, then they need to start employing writers and directors who can transplant the video game narratives well on the big screen. Uthaug, Robertson-Dworet, and Siddons all do serviceable work that scratches that lazy Sunday afternoon, undemanding viewing itch, but that’s not enough now. A truly great, inspirational character like Lara Croft deserves more than a run of the mill action flick.
Look, Tomb Raider isn’t going to suddenly reinvigorate and restore video game to movie adaptations. Its failures are frustrating given how easily avoidable they are, and hopefully these will be rectified in future sequels. The void left behind after the conclusion of both the Resident Evil and Underworld series is a significant one. Alicia Vikander nails the role of Lara Croft, establishing herself as an action star on the rise. Just, next time guys, let’s get diversity behind the scenes and pulling the strings, and heck, you never know, it just could be the Wonder Woman of video game movies. (One can dream right?)
Director: Roar Uthaug
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Daniel Wu, Walton Goggins
Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons