Tomb Raider review
What does Lara Croft mean to you?
She’s a character that has existed in video games nearly as long as Mario, and she’s undergone a dozen transformations. Born of guns and teen horniness, a blocky pixelated heroine shot the hell out of various animals with gigantic guns and spelunking, all while a camera allowed you to ogle her barely recognizable human form. Depending on what brought you to the table, maybe she was an object or maybe she was an action hero or perhaps she was always both.
And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that? Indiana Jones, her male counterpart, doesn’t exist without a smoldering sexuality. The word “action” has many layers and true action star characters that have multi-decade lifespans must appeal to us on as many levels. But whereas an Indiana Jones was always allowed to exist as exactly who he was, Lara Croft (the titular Tomb Raider) has always had an uphill cultural climb. Different game studios have had different visions of the hero, from hyper-sexualized to hyper-realistic, and sometimes even an overlapping condition.
The end-sum of this battle was perhaps best realized by the early 00s double feature of Tomb Raider films starring Angelina Jolie (above), who flawless embodies the exact same artistic vs. sexualization vs. power vs. identity dynamic as Lara Croft. There’s such a rich history around the idea, the realization, and even the technology that allows for Lara Croft to exist that it’s impossible to appreciate what the character means without also acknowledging that it’s been a bit of a muddy road to get to this point.
It’s impossible to appreciate what the character means without also acknowledging that it’s been a bit of a muddy road to get to this point.
With all that in mind, it’s very easy to celebrate the new Tomb Raider film for what it means to 20 years of pop-culture: one of the biggest wins I’ve ever seen for video game film adaptations and certainly the positivity high mark for Croft as a concept on such a large scale it would be impossible to backslide from here.
And the movie itself is only half of what makes this as exciting as it is.
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) loses her father Richard (Dominic West) as a young girl. Rather than inherit his fortune and the Croft Manor, as if the usual backstory, Lara moves to London where she takes on this Aladdin-ish street urchin lifestyle. She’s a bicycle courier by day who is constantly getting beat up at a gym by night. She’s training for an inevitability that she can feel, but she’s also not looking for anything in life except disappearing between the cracks.
There’s a few notes on this early act worth sharing. First, the all-women’s gym she trains in establishes from the beginning that Lara Croft is not any sort of super hero. She’s a motivated fighter that other women are consistently trouncing, and it feels like a choice right out of the gate to deny any accusation of Mary Sue-ism in what Lara Croft is. She has spirit; she’s no meta-human.
And then we see how she carries herself around the other couriers. Lara quotes Shakespeare but then pretends away knowing the source of the material, which gets her called out by her male colleagues for trying too hard to fit in. Everyone would rather see her accept the Croft she clearly is, but her stubborn refusal to do so has created this sort of antithesis to the expected Croft origin story: she’s a little book-learned, but she’s mostly street smart with no foreign language of tomb raiding knowledge whatsoever. The refusal of the silver spoon adolescence or any kind of Alfred-type caretaker makes for a wider-eyed adventurer who cannot magic-solution her way through the puzzles of the journey.
Finally, there’s a few London-based action sequences that match electronica to high-octane Lara show-off moments in a way that recalls films like Go or Hackers and spiritually it feels like a subtle nod the history of what makes Lara Croft an eternal character.
From here, Lara winds up in legal trouble that leads to her needing to finally inherit her father’s estate, against her will. Instead, she unlocks a series of puzzles and discovers that her father was driven mad by his wife’s death, and began searching the world for a connection to the afterlife. Instead, he found a Japanese death goddess and that’s probably why he never came home. (It’s worth noting that between Tomb Raider and Wrinkle In Time, the cinema is currently a great place to find dads who got so into science that they wound up abandoning their daughter and said daughters refused to give up on them.) Rather than destroy her father’s research, as he requests via a video diary left for Lara, she decides to go on an adventure in pursuit of her dear old dad. Not only does this kickstart her titular tomb raiding, she also brings the un-destroyed research with her, committing the first of the film's many shockingly bad choices in service of the narrative.
This whole sequence is just blanketed in layers of genuinely adorable relationship building.
(Completely outside the structure of this review, this feels like the moment to mention that Roar Uthaug is the name of the director of this film. We should all agree, mutually by blood oath, to watch anything made by a person named Roar Uthaug. Anyhow…)
Lara tracks down a ship in Hong Kong captained by Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) whose father took Lara’s father to a mysterious island where they were both lost. Lu and Lara and now engaged in a journey to resolve the daddy issues that plague them (Lu is blackout drunk) and so begins their journey into both the unknown of the mysterious Yamatai, but also a journey into friendship. I’m not being asinine about this: this whole sequence is just blanketed in layers of genuinely adorable relationship building.
You can call it from here. Ship crashes, they wash up on Mystery Island, mystery island bad-man (Walton Goggins) takes them prisoner, ancient tomb gets raided, what’s in that tomb is Bad and Not Good in surprising ways, Lara finds herself in a hero’s journey, things end well and there’s a tease for Lara doing more tomb raidin’ in the future.
It is an exceptionally B+ action movie. It feels like what MoviePass was invented for. It is a big silly action film where no one is having fun but that’s okay. For me, what the movie is experimenting with is way more important the movie itself, but also heightens the film. Let’s dig in:
Square Enix and Crystal Dynamics brought a reboot of Tomb Raider to us in 2013, and the script for that (led by writer Rhianna Pratchett) saw a dark, brutal story of a young woman forced to find herself on a harsh island where violence forced her to grow up real fast. That script served as the basis for this film so directly that during some of the copy-pasted action sequences, my wife’s hands were moving to hit the quicktime event buttons while we were in the theater. But the film also takes a 20 hour game story from five years ago and streamlines it into a tight 100 minute swashbuckling adventure. For example, in the original game the ship that brings them to the island has a dozen characters, each with their own stories and their own eventual loss that Lara must suffer. Combining most of that into one character works in the film’s favor.
And this all represents the direct involvement of the game studio in the film adaptation. Tomb Raider is not the best video game movie I’ve ever seen, but it is the best movie game adaptation I’ve ever seen.
The major story points all get hit in exciting, fun ways, while conveying the importance of the events for the character. Lara lives through some of the reboot game’s most relevant thematic moments, such as having to make her first kill because she’s given no other option, and then suffering the psychological aftereffects. I’ve long thought of the game’s version of this event as a high watermark for games doing moments like this, but I think the film does it better. Both the film and the game then result in Lara going on an action mass murder spree within minutes without any remorse, and yeah, that’s still not the best. But when a game does better than 99% of games you’ve played in terms of handling a complicated action origin point, why not translate it directly to film? Which is the question for a lot of what determines your level of enjoying Tomb Raider. What does Lara Croft mean to you and what do you want from a video game movie?
See, this is, I think, what gamers have wanted and they will be either upset in their wish-fulfilment or completely satisfied. Tomb Raider lets a team of very good actors take control of a beautiful, entirely proficient action movie, which I could edit together 85% of from Let’s Plays of an Xbox 360 game from 2013. In that way, yeah, this is a re-edit of cutscenes into a movie that my parents can watch without knowing that they’re watching a video game. But it also does so without calling attention to itself in the way that any video game movie has ever done.
This is, I think, what gamers have wanted and they will be either upset in their wish-fulfilment or completely satisfied.
For example, the weirdly off-color surfaces of the game that indicated a cliff was climbable or that a bar was something Lara could shimmy across: those color elements are in the movie and on those surfaces. No one outside of game players would ever notice it, but for me it was a delight to point to thing and say “Isn’t it funny that the ammo dumps are the same color?” or “Check it out it’s the same exploding barrels!” Small, passive Easter eggs that gave me a sense of reward in the easily-pleased gamer part of my brain and I unapologetically appreciate it.
(As a fun side-note, my wife refers to the walls Lara can climb in the 2013 game as cottage cheese walls, due to their texture that differentiates them from the other cliffs in the game. It was downright disarming to see cottage cheese walls in a major Hollywood movie. Anyway…)
The question that Tomb Raider opens up here is the very nature of film adaptation. I said above that I could make 85% of this film from Let’s Plays, but that other 15% does a truly incredible job at both simplifying and simultaneously capturing a much bigger idea of the sort of things Tomb Raider as a franchise is striving to accomplish. For example, Walton Goggins’ madness-stricken antagonist has created a Temple of the Doom style slave mining system on the island but also is himself the whipping-boy of a shadowy interest keeping his family from him. The usual magical third act twist of a Tomb Raider story is subtly undercut and replaced by a biological weapon-based realistic evil that keeps the Unknown alive while crafting a narrative that my parents would understand and enjoy.
Is this… is this enough change to make Tomb Raider different from the five year old video game that you may have played? Is that enough to make buying a ticket this weekend worth it to you? It’s a big question and it seems like the obvious choice that will divide fandom because this is everything that fans of the game would want to see and would equally be angry to see for reasons they can’t properly define. Not that the measure of art should reside with fandom, but the video game movie as a concept is perpetually under the thumb of fandom, and I believe this is the point where everything combined to make a point in the business narrative of this industry that will force studios to pick a side moving forward.
And that’s the most exciting part of Tomb Raider to me. In the opening moments, the Square Enix logo spread across the screen, and I realized that Tomb Raider is the first game film in my life (other than weird CGI tie-in shovelfilm) in which the game studio had as much responsibility as the movie studio. And what they brought to screen is, no matter what other criticisms you may have, the most direct line from controller to celluloid that I’ve ever seen. The doors this opens, if successful, are tantalizing to me. My brain shouted “Let Bioware make the Bioware movies.” I don’t know if that’s good or unholy but this is… this is what I’ve been waiting for, I think? “Let EA gimmie a cinema Dead Space,” my heart shouts, even though I know my heart shouldn't be making business decisions. “What would Blizzard’s WarCraft have looked like,” I get excited about, as if I even care?
Tomb Raider feels like a business Hellraiser Puzzle Box and I want it opened. Does that mean this would always go well? Hellllllll no. It doesn’t go flawlessly here either. Hell, at one point in Tomb Raider you can tell a game studio tried too hard to make a game film, because Lara says out loud “This is a color puzzle,” before completely losing the audience in the process of trying every solution to a color puzzle in a tomb. There’s so much here that a more talented filmmaker could have improved upon.
What Square Enix have brought to screen is, no matter what other criticisms you may have, the most direct line from controller to celluloid that I’ve ever seen.
But for the first time I can remember, in seeing a game adaptation, I didn’t see anyone completely drop the ball. A game studio involved in adaptation on this level may not give us anything greater, but holy crap does it guarantee we don’t settle for anything lesser.
And that is my new standard, as it should be for the industry. There’s so much to learn from here, but if none of that matters to you then guess what? Tomb Raider is really fun and totally fine. If that’s not better than what you expected then you haven’t suffered like I’ve suffered in the last few decades.