Though it lacks the creative spark or daring or silliness or even just the pulse it would need to transcend action-flick cliché oblivion, Tomb Raider the reboot does boast one asset: Alicia Vikander.
As the iconic video game adventurer Lara Croft, Vikander is a fantastically believable blend of reckless inexperience, bravery, and grit, reinventing the larger-than-life heroine as a fallible hero-to-be. Unfortunately, it’s everything around Lara, from the film’s nonsensical dialogue to its paint-by-number thrills, that drags Vikander’s performance—and the potential of this new Lara Croft—into alternately maddening and eye-glazing inanity.
Director Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider seems deathly afraid of the kinds of risks his heroine would leap into headfirst. Nearly every beat feels lifted from twenty other Indiana Jones imitators (falling over a waterfall, check; parachute crash-landing, check; ancient floor puzzles, check). Characters are assigned personality traits through on-the-nose dialogue; their relationships in turn maneuver unnaturally, never veering too close to real emotion. No surprise or revelation passes without being over-explained, repeated twice, or telegraphed well in advance. And while the film faithfully recreates several set pieces from the video game that rebooted Lara Croft’s mythology (2013’s Tomb Raider), it waters down anything so colorful as the supernatural mystique or clear, compelling character arcs of its source material.
None of this adds up to an offensively terrible movie, per se—just an unadventurous one we’ve seen done before, starring one of pop culture’s most recognizable female characters. (Albeit in a more modern, less breast-enhanced form than Angelina Jolie’s vampy 2001 version. Maybe that alone felt like a risk to this movie’s makers?) It’s a shame. That first Jolie film, while leery and ridiculous, dialed the “pulp” in pulp adventure to such maniacally campy levels, it was actually sort of fun. It also proved audiences would fork over nearly $300 million to watch a suave, hyper-capable woman smirk and slay with no male romantic interest in sight, at a time when Hollywood was (even more) deeply skeptical of female-led action movies.
But if Vikander’s Tomb Raider doesn’t spawn a sequel like Jolie’s, it will be no fault of her own. From the start, the Oscar winner lends the legendary Croft a charmingly clever vulnerability, as if daring you to underestimate her. This Lara is a broke British aristocrat working as a bike courier in London, holding off on claiming her inheritance because it would mean formally acknowledging that her father (Dominic West), who disappeared seven years ago, is dead. She gets her ass kicked in boxing classes. She crashes her bike during a race. She gets her backpack stolen by three punks. She stutters, stumbles, and fails, then gets back up again and again. (Grit, we’ll soon see, is the only of Lara’s traits the script trusts Vikander to convey on her own, and she does it forcefully from the get-go.)
It’s a solid enough preamble for an action icon’s origin story. It’s also why it’s so disappointing when Tomb Raider goes dead in the eyes and switches to autopilot for her self-actualizing adventure. A clue Lara’s father leaves her in a Japanese puzzle box leads her to a man named Lu Ren (Into the Badlands’ Daniel Wu), whose father disappeared with hers while searching for the island of Yamatai, where a Japanese goddess named Queen Himiko is said to be interred. Against her father’s last wishes, the two sail off together in search of the island, promptly steering their ship into a monster storm and crashing onto shore. A shadowy figure knocks Lara out and when she wakes, she’s in a nightmare: alone in a tent with a creepy middle-aged dude who tells her she looks like his daughters.
This guy, Mathias (played by Walter Goggins), is ostensibly the film’s villain—a fact I only underline because you might not realize it until after the credits roll. He briefly mentions a vaguely evil organization called the Trinity, which he works for, but otherwise all eyes are on Himiko and the world-destroying ancient curse we’re told she can unleash. (Mathias, by contrast, barks at lackeys and shouts into a walkie-talkie. He’s barely a threat.) Almost the entire film passes in anticipation of Lara vs. The Death Goddess. Lara survives hell leveling up for it: she plummets off cliffs, gets stabbed, fights off men twice her size and even kills one. Yet the showdown never comes. Himiko, she who can make rivers run red with blood or whatever, turns out to be a dusty old corpse afflicted by a virus, not a supernatural curse. (Spoiler, I guess, for the most anemic twist of the film.)
From Mathias’ introduction through the (anti-)climax, everyone begins behaving erratically, as if governed by a predictive text algorithm that analyzed every action movie and spit out a script of its own. Sometimes the effect is comical, as when Mathias implies to Lara that she’s the first person he’s spoken to in seven years, apologizing for being “out of practice”—just as several men start meandering visibly in the background, minutes before he starts ordering them around. Other times, the inconsistencies prove baffling, as when Lu Ren abruptly decides he would risk dying to free Lara from slave labor, though he barely knows her. He’s promptly sidelined from the story entirely, and by film’s end, every Asian person on the whole island decides to risk everything for Lara. Just because.
When she does break free of the bothersome men around her—and there are only men around her; every other woman in the film evaporates once Lara leaves London—Vikander shines. The most genuine, compelling scenes come whenever she is alone, unburdened by clunky dialogue. When she lingers gasping in shock and physical anguish at the realization that she’s killed a man in self-defense. When she’s tasked with yanking out a piece of debris from her flesh, searing pain convincingly etched into her body and voice. When, despite what just happened, she gets up again and carries on. These are the moments, more than any CGI-aided spectacle, that provide glimpses of a young woman discovering the depths of her own resilience—the origin story of Lara Croft.
To be sure, much of Lara has gone missing. Her ingenuity is demonstrated through solving puzzles with such mind-bending solutions as “blue plus yellow equals green.” She raids exactly one tomb and not until quite late into the movie. There’s no indication she’s ever formally studied archaeology. And her emotional arc throughout hinges not on self-discovery, but on her missing dad, as if an audience might not accept stakes that don’t somehow involve a dude. But to its credit, the film mostly respects its heroine, never camera-ogling her or stooping to threats of sexual violence. (It’s a low bar, for sure, but here we are.)
After the underwhelming spy-thriller Red Sparrow, Tomb Raider is the second female-led action film of 2018 to fall short of expectations. It shouldn’t matter. Tomb Raider is no better or worse than the hundreds of forgettable male-led action vehicles that litter theaters year in and year out. And if no one wrung their hands over the future of leading men in action movies after the failures of The Mummy and King Arthur last year, no one has real reason to do more than yawn here. Progress in Hollywood isn’t measured just by who is given the opportunity to succeed, but in who is given the opportunity to come back from failure too—to fall down and get back up again. Just like Lara Croft would.