Review: Tomb Raider (2018)

Distributor: Warner Bros.

Director: Roar Uthaug

Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet, Alastair Siddons, Evan Daugherty (story)

Composer: Junkie XL

Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu

Genre: Action, Adventure

Rating: PG-13

When Tomb Raider first came out in 1996, it was a huge success. It had a major impact on my life. My parents didn’t like the idea of video games, so there was no NES, Sega, or Atari when I was growing up. As soon as my brother was old enough to earn his own money, he purchased a PlayStation. I remember the night he came home with it, along with three games, one of which was Tomb Raider. It was my introduction to gaming as a whole.

Since I was only a kid and the youngest in the family, naturally my brother didn’t allow me to play it at first, but I nevertheless found happiness in watching him explore the various cavernous catacombs. Looking back now, he probably hated me “backseat gaming”, but some of my fondest memories of childhood involve the times I sat beside my brother while we both figured out how to navigate Lara Croft across the horribly textured blocky landscape.

After spending many hours immersed in the game, despite there not being a great deal of information about Lara Croft, she soon became part of my identity. The character was referenced as part of my first email account, and even today “Lara” is the fake name I give to the people at Starbucks because I know they have absolutely no chance in spelling my real one. She was the first single, independent woman in fiction that I came across in life, and as a young girl trying to find her place in this world, I admired her. To explore the atmospheric tombs as her, where danger lurked around every corner, was exhilarating.

I’ve kept in contact with the franchise over the years, though it slowly evolved into something else. Lara became more sexualized, the first film (while reasonably entertaining) didn’t feature much of the titular act of raiding tombs, and the later games added more and more human enemies, shifting from a puzzle platformer to more of a third person shooter. Tomb Raider (2013) was a huge success, much like the first, but it seemed to be a shadow of what was loved about the original. This new film has me worried as a result. Will it merely be a contrived body-horror flick with uninspired supernatural elements, or will it gravitate more towards the tone of the original games, resulting in a much-needed action-adventure film?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Lots of gun violence. A number of characters are shot with bullets or arrows though there is little blood shown. There are a few deaths on screen. There are fistfights, sometimes between a man and a woman. A character drowns. An ancient tomb is explored which contains booby traps involving spikes and steep drops. Characters are stabbed. Open wounds are shown as one character removes a sharp object that has impaled his/her stomach. There are several tense moments where a character is trying to survive a potentially sudden drop. There are lots of decaying skeletons. Rapid necrosis is seen on screen. Several characters hurt themselves in bicycle crashes. One character threatens another with a knife. There are several explosions.

Language/Crude Humor: The s-word is said a few times. The f-word is implied but never said fully.

Drug/Alcohol References: One character is depicted as an alcoholic and passes out while drunk.

Sexual Content: None, surprisingly. Lara Croft wears a tank top throughout the film, as shown on the film’s posters.

Spiritual Content: The subplot delves into a Japanese myth that revolves around a sorceress that delivered death. The film constantly questions whether the supernatural exists or if myths are exaggerations of more realistic events.

Other Negative Content: There is an armed robbery and attempted murder. Gambling is present, which involves tasks that include the destruction of property and being a public nuisance. Slavery and underhanded business transactions are also present in the film.

Positive Content: The film delivers strong messages about understanding one’s inheritance and identity. The subplot is all about the preservation of life and the importance of sacrifice.

Review

I can comfortably say that Tomb Raider (2018) is the best video game adaptation to hit the big screen, not because it’s a fantastic movie, but because the bar was set so low in the first place. Likewise, this is the best version of Lara Croft that we have ever seen, for the exact same reason. The film is a perfectly serviceable piece of entertainment, yet those who are hoping for more will leave disappointed.

Let’s be brutally honest here–Lara Croft, while a much-loved character, has never been properly developed. I looked up to her as an idol when I was a young girl: she was intelligent, athletic, wealthy, and yes, confident around the boys. Like a female version of Indiana Jones, who doesn’t enjoy fantasizing about possessing those traits? Yet they are ultimately shallow attributes, and while the gaming medium allows players to insert their own personas into the avatar, thereby automatically fleshing the role out, on film the character has nowhere to hide.

While I still view Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a guilty pleasure, Angelina Jolie’s rendition of the iconic female was, for the most part, emotionally distant from viewers. In Blake Snyder’s influential love-or-hate-it screenplay-writing book, Save the Cat, he mentions Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as a classic example of a script that’s absent of the critical first act story beat, which is supposed to contain a moment where the audience grows to like the protagonist. The Lara Croft back then lacked flaws, and therefore had no real room for personal growth, causing the audience to find her unrelatable throughout her cinematic journey.

Thankfully Tomb Raider (2018) has made Lara Croft’s character development the top priority. While Lara can afford to have a few more flaws, Alicia Vikander’s portrayal is more grounded in reality, despite some fanciful elements in the plot. There’s still room for improvement when it comes to really digging deep and finding out what makes Lara Croft tick, but the film offers a nice little journey about accepting one’s identity. Purists may still prefer Jolie’s version, as she exuded Lara’s confidence, both in her technical abilities and sexuality, but considering the age difference and the fact that this reboot is essentially an origin story, Vikander’s portrayal makes sense within the surrounding context.

When it comes to adapting its corresponding game, Tomb Raider (2018) is the most faithful film in the franchise. The plot has undergone some necessary tweaks, particularly in its opening act in order to make Lara’s journey more personal. Admittedly, the game’s story was horribly contrived in its structure, though it was all in order to create goal-oriented levels–an aspect that’s not required in films. The movie has sensibly stripped the supporting cast back and has stayed more within the adventure-action subgenre, as a lesser edited script would’ve resulted in a body-horror film in the realm of Turistas. Despite some major reshuffling of the narrative, it still maintains the essence of the game, and players will enjoy the many nods throughout the film, particularly in its beautiful production design.

Some of the film’s actions sequences have been lifted directly from the game, whilst others are completely original. Regardless, the majority are genuinely riveting scenes that get the audience eagerly leaning forward in their seats. This film contains one of the best bicycle chases I’ve seen (granted, I can’t recall many), and there are some lovely parkour stunts and titular tomb raiding set pieces. Thankfully the more outlandish action sequences in the game were left behind, and while there are still one or two physics-defying jumps, Lara Croft’s abilities don’t instantly snap the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

Though this is where the praises end. There are still a number of problems when it comes to the film’s narrative structure. The story’s biggest hurdle is getting Lara Croft–a downcast, burgeoning delinquent–onto a boat heading into the Dragon’s Triangle; a journey that’s linked to both her father and a mysterious legend. That’s a long string needed to equip Lara’s bow.

So while the opening act of the movie does well in establishing the main character, it’s clunky with its execution. Side characters appear that are never seen again. Lara’s relationship with her absentee father is largely established through flashbacks, which is a film technique that becomes more intrusive as the movie wears on. Meanwhile, the legend surrounding the island is delivered in massive dialogue-heavy exposition dumps.

This all causes uneasy tonal shifts throughout the film. It switches from robust action sequences to a family drama, then to pondering the supernatural, all while occasionally having a dark and gritty play in the horror genre. Like the journey on the Endurance, it’s not smooth sailing when it comes to hitting the main story beats. In some ways, it’s fun to see a mix of First Blood, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Da Vinci Code with a set that’s reminiscent of AVP: Alien vs. Predator. After all, the original game found its popularity by catering to a niche market. Yet this genre blend becomes too foreign at times, with the film ultimately feeling lost when it comes to deciding which demographic to target.

That all said, there are certainly more tonally disjointed films in existence, with Tomb Raider (2018) being on the mild end of the spectrum. Norwegian director, Roar Uthaug, keeps everything reasonably on track, instinctively knowing which parts to hit in order to please fans of the series. It’s clear that this film wants to play in a similar ballpark to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, except Tomb Raider takes itself too seriously to pull off the plot’s heavy reliance on mythical tall tales and almost comically grandiose set pieces. A more light-hearted approach like Steven Spielberg, or by making the link between Richard Croft and Yamatai less tenuous, may have helped to sell the story.

As for the elephant in the room… It’s a shame that I still feel a need to address it at all. Yet the character of Lara Croft has left a huge legacy within popular culture, and this film has been naturally burdened with the big shoes everyone expects it to fill. So, as a woman, do I feel empowered after watching Tomb Raider? No. Not in the way that I would have expected.

It’s common to hear some members of the general public say, “We need more female action heroes!” and sometimes Hollywood has responded with all-female casts that whoot with “Grrl P0wer!” Gosh, how lame. If that’s the type of attitude you’re expecting from Tomb Raider (2018), then you’re going to encounter disappointment. What I loved about this film was that this version of Lara Croft wasn’t constantly self-conscious of her gender. If a teenage boy were cast instead, not a lot of the plot would need tweaking.

That’s the sort of thing I actually want to see more in cinemas. Just interesting female roles in a general sense, where characters aren’t male purely by default. As an actor, I’m tired of looking up casting calls where out of the six or so parts that need to be filled, only one is for a woman, and that role is the girlfriend, with no descriptors other than her being sexy, slender, and a little feisty (can you tell that this actually happened to me very recently?).

If a particular gender isn’t crucial to the plot, then there should be equal representation within those roles–simply cast the actor who gave the best audition. That’s what I believe women are actually wanting. Not boatloads of gimmicky movies where females fight men and continually spout comments regarding their overwhelming womanhood. Granted, they are a guilty pleasure, but it’s a shallow end game.

Thankfully the cinematic art form is moving in the right direction. When Lara’s character was first conceived, it was at a time when there weren’t a great variety of female role models. But Lara Croft was a pioneer in that area and inspired a whole host of  female-led stories. We’re now at a time where women have embraced their sexuality more, and female warriors are uncommon, not rare; a trend that is also starting to happen with the cinematic portrayals of certain professional fields, such as doctors, lawyers, and scientists. There’s certainly more to be done, but there has been progress since the first game’s release in 1996. It’s exciting to see that this year’s Oscars included films like Lady Bird, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, The Shape of Water, The Florida Project, I, Tonya, The Post, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Molly’s Game, All the Money in the World, and Phantom Thread, all of which featured diverse, strong, and most importantly, interesting female characters.

There were a number of years where the Tomb Raider franchise was no longer on the scene. Now that it’s back, it seems it’s pitted against its own spiritual offspring. That’s why I didn’t feel empowered–I realized that Lara Croft no longer is the only character that fills the void I once had. She’s not the only fictional successful woman with fantastical pursuits anymore. It’s a pleasant feeling. I’m grateful for this franchise and the impact it had on my tween years; I’ll always be a fan and look back with fondness. Yet I’m happy to leave it in the past as I seek to admire the other powerful, female archetypal variations that are coming to the fore.

While the relevance of Tomb Raider’s protagonist may have already peaked, it’s still an important entry to the otherwise quickly fading adventure subgenre. Let’s face it. We’re not getting another The Mummy anytime soon, which is the same story with the National Treasure series, whilst the Indiana Jones franchise only ever had three films, and if you dare to tell me otherwise, then as Adam Savage would say, “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” There’s been so much focus on the gender of Tomb Raider’s protagonist, that the other reasons why the game was popular (great level design, puzzles, with a mix of whimsical myths and exploration) are often overlooked.

Hopefully, thanks partly to Wonder Woman, there now isn’t a ludicrous amount of pressure for female-led action narratives to succeed, allowing Tomb Raider the freedom to play with the other aspects that made the series unique, should a sequel be in the works. Once the film had completed its heavy lifting in setting up its main character, it was pure fun to see the cast navigate a series of booby traps, although it was at times gruesomely reminiscent of Resident Evil.

This movie is certainly flawed, but it is a strong game adaptation and a much-needed addition to the archaeological adventure niche. Tomb Raider (2018) offers a fun time at the cinema provided you’re not looking for anything deeper than occasional entertainment. It’s also available in 3D. There were only a handful of scenes where I noticed it and thought it benefitted the movie. You can take it or leave it. I’m of the opinion that it’s the only time where I can watch it in that format–if the glasses don’t bother you, and you’re not going to miss the extra money involved, then it’s worth considering. Though the 3D still isn’t anything to rave about; it’s an enjoyable film regardless.

Positives

+ Action sequences + Lara Croft isn’t sexualized + Alicia Vikander’s portrayal + The actual tomb raiding segment + Great game adaptation + Production design

Negatives

- Dips into the horror genre - A lot of exposition - Narrative feels fragmented; subplots only barely held together - Awkward tonal shifts - Constant flashbacks become cliché.

The Bottom Line

With an awkward amount of exposition and a constant need to shift tones, Tomb Raider still manages to deliver an exciting adventure that pays homage to its gaming roots. The franchise and its leading lady may have lost its relevance in popular culture over the years, but it will still go down in history as one of the better adaptations out there.

 

6.9

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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