Film Review | Why Tomb Raider Fails to Break the Video Game Curse

Another year, another film based on a game that we’re assured, this time, no question, will break the curse and be a good film. After her husband managed to make an aggressively boring film with Assassin’s Creed, it’s Alicia Vikander’s turn at one of gaming’s most enduring icons. Like her predecessor Angelina Jolie, Vikander has stepped off the stage of an Oscar acceptance speech and into the death-soaked boots of Lara Croft (her formal title of “Lady” quietly dropped in these more class conscious times) for the gritty origin story Tomb Raider based on the 2013 reboot of the game series.

Refusing to accept her father’s death after he’s been missing for almost a decade, Lara discovers a clue of his last known location. Shipwrecking herself on a lost and allegedly cursed Japanese island, she runs afoul of Walton Goggins and the Trinity organisation hell bent on opening the tomb of the Mother of Death. Armed only with her fierce intelligence, surprising adeptness at killing her fellow man, and that seemingly impervious-to-damage skin that only the truly rich have; Lara must fulfill her father’s mission, stop Trinity and save the world.

Tomb Raider 2 - Headstuff.org
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At the risk of skipping to the reveal, the new Tomb Raider isn’t great. It’s not outright terrible but it’s annoyingly devoid of almost anything of note. Vikander is genuinely a delight and demonstrates she absolutely has the assured, effortless screen presence to carry an action franchise. Sadly the screenplay let’s her down massively. Lara is inconsistently intelligent, naive or jaded depending on the scene and only occasionally independent – when not riddled with daddy issues. While the games have annoyingly gone this route of late too, this film pushes them to bleak new extremes. While mercifully devoid of a love interest, the all encompassing spectre of father dearest sucks even the hint of autonomy from what should be a tale of self-determined female agency.

If you can make it through the unending first hour there is some well executed action sequences to be found on the island. A near perfect recreation of a set piece from the game – starting in a water rapid, continuing to a crashed plane and ending in a painful parachute plunge – is probably the highlight of the film. And a ridiculous sequence later on where the characters have to solve a stupid colour matching puzzle in the midst of a life or death situation is pure Tomb Raider – if a tad at odds with the film’s own dreary tone. There’s also an admirable amount of practical stunt work and visually impressive real sets, with the omnipresent CGI on the whole being fairly unobtrusive.

As a nitpick, this one is likely irrelevant to almost anyone who is going to see this but Tomb Raider as a franchise (and Lara as character) is something I’m far too invested in so indulge me. In a sort of ouroboros-of-influence way, this film’s existence makes sense. It’s based on the 2013 reboot of the games which reigned the franchise in and made it a gritty, violent and reasonably grounded affair. It was a game big on set pieces and character and as such aimed to be, and ultimately felt, quite cinematic. So, basing the rebooted film on the quite cinematic rebooted game made sense – even if it feels a bit like a copy of a copy in the abstract.

Here’s the rub, it veered close enough to that particular game that it was hard to watch it and not mentally notice the differences; all the odd character comprises or omissions and all the clear missteps. The main one is the complete erasure of the supernatural from this incarnation. While the present reboot games have toned down the fantastical elements, they are still minimally there. What in the game is a literal ancient Japanese queen with evil magical powers, is here just a disease. The menace of the island is gone because Walton Goggins has a phone and anyone can leave when they want. In the game no phone signals could escape and the entombed queen’s magic kept a perpetual storm around the island to halt comings and goings.

I realise this is likely the case because distancing themselves from the garish, deranged nonsense of the Jolie films was probably top of their to do list. As such, sacrificing plot points akin to Iain Glen’s attempts to control time itself or Daniel Craig having to fight sentient stone monkeys, or even Ciarán Hinds wanting to weaponise Pandora’s Bo-…(yes those are things that happen in those previous Jolie outings.)

Lara Croft 3 - Headstuff.org
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The point is, they didn’t have to go that far but removing the supernatural altogether feels lazy and boring. Especially given that on a screenplay level, this film actually adheres bizarrely closely to the first Jolie film they’re clearly so afraid to be compared to. The villain characterisation and goal, the heavy use of Lara’s father in the narrative – something first done in the Jolie movie and then imported into the games; the ouroboros strikes again – even just the mechanics of the final showdown. Oddly similar to its early noughties cousin.

I’ve argued before that the best approach a game-based film could take would be to try and capture the mood and atmosphere of playing the game rather than focusing on the more superficial elements. Having now seen an example where they exactly recreate the visuals, most of the story and even sizeable action sequences from the game – and for it to still be frustratingly dull – I’m now even more convinced of that notion.

As a final nail in the… tomb, it’s frankly disgusting that the man who scored both Furiosa and Wonder Woman’s onscreen munificence would be part of something so viscerally anemic without managing to liven it up musically. Indeed, I’d wager the new Tomb Raider could be improved a good 10-15% by just playing Wonder Woman’s theme over every action scene with Lara.

In summary, if you need that live action Lara itch scratched, your best port of call continues to be Relic Hunter reruns.

Tomb Raider is out in cinemas now


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