Tomb Raider is the long, carefully paced first half and the rushed second half of two quite different movies. It’s a fun time, but you will be surprised at how early it ends.
The film features Lara Croft (played by Alicia Vikander and Alicia Vikander’s impressive abs) trying to solve the mystery of her billionaire father’s disappearance on a small island off Japan, raiding a few tombs while she does it and fighting off mercenaries.
It’s based on the extremely long running game series (the first game came out way back in 1996) though it takes most of its cues from the 2013 game, which was a soft reboot of the bloated, seemingly endless series. That game attempted to ground itself. The emphasis moved away from effortlessly leaping across chasms while dual wielding pistols to sneaking around and shooting people with a bow and arrow. As such, this film is also an attempt to be more grounded, certainly more so than the Angelina Jolie films, which started with her, amongst other things, fighting a giant robot.
That’s where a lot of its problems start. There’s a question when adapting anything from one medium to another: how to translate what worked in the other medium? After all, what makes for a terrific book might be unwatchable as a film, what makes a good film doesn’t work as well in a TV series. Video games are no exception. What makes them fun is mastery and a sense of accomplishment, which doesn’t necessarily translate. And, while I’m not arguing that the film should have been an hour and a half of Lara smashing open crates in the hope of improving her equipment (there’s a great conceptual film in there) it does spend far too much of its brief running time on bits that a player would absolutely skip through.
The movie is nearly half over before she leaves for the island, it is half over by the time she arrives, which means meeting the villain, escaping, fighting back and actually raiding the tomb (she doesn’t really raid it, but that is fun to say) are all crammed into a short, rushed segment of the film. So, what does the film do instead?
There’s a lot of Lara in London, trying to make ends meet as a delivery rider, there’s a lot of her wandering around Hong Kong, trying to find clues about her father and meeting her companion for much of the film, an alcoholic but extremely buff sea captain (Daniel Wu). There’s some good characterisation here. Obviously, a billionaire heiress isn’t that relatable, and so we have to see her struggle before we can empathise with her. The strange thing is, we don’t need to see her working day jobs to realise she’s hard working or self reliant. We don’t need to hear her recite a single line of Shakespeare to understand that she’s well educated (after all, everyone else in the room recognises it, so it’s a weird thing to use as a signifier). There’s nothing wrong with taking one’s time to do some characterisation, but when you do it with a whole bunch of characters who subsequently vanish, and you do it through the lens of a billionaire who’s slumming it purely out of pride, you’re left with a clumsy, slow section of the film that stops us getting to the bit where the tomb raider actually raids some tombs.
And it’s frustrating, because once the film gets going, it’s a lot of fun. Vikander, who’s made her name in serious films for grownups that win Oscars, takes to action with surprising aplomb. She’s clearly put the work in, and turns in an impressive physical performance. She captures the same ‘oh goddamit’ exasperation that made Indiana Jones work as a character, and some real ferocity in the fight scenes. The set pieces are well constructed, being little stories in their own right. The puzzles in the tomb are clever enough to feel like the characters surviving them is an accomplishment, and it all looks good.
The really exasperating part is that all that characterisation is actually repeated throughout this jam-packed segment. We learn, once again, that Lara is tough, determined, hardworking, empathetic and brave. That she’ll stick at things. In fact, she survives and triumphs much of the time through trial and error, a nice nod to the foundational idea of gaming. Director Roar Uthaug (I swear that fantastic name is his real one) clearly does know how to characterise Lara and people without slowing the film down. The film’s villain even manages to have a clear motive in about two sentences, which makes the decision to start the film at a complete halt more confusing. It’s a weird thing where the game, which starts with the shipwreck that occurs halfway through the film, ended up doing some better work of getting things moving. Then again, it had to.
It’s a fun night at the movies. Or the second half of one. Filled, as blockbusters often are now, with absolutely fantastic actors (Walton Goggins, Dominic West, Kristen Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi all pop up), stunt work and special effects, it has shades of excellence, but it’s all a bit cramped after the overlong first half.