Tomb Raider Review: A Great Video Game Adaptation

The new Tomb Raider is a pretty good action movie and a better than average video game adaptation, with a stunning performance from Oscar winner Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. What really elevates it, though, are a couple of extremely specific story and design decisions that set it apart from all its contemporaries, from Indiana Jones and Uncharted to past Tomb Raider games and movies.

To say exactly where the story goes that makes Tomb Raider so unique would be a spoiler, but let’s just say it stays surprisingly grounded.

That’s a word you can apply to more or less the whole movie. Much of the action is heightened to unbelievable proportions, though no more so than in the 2013 Tomb Raider game, which was widely praised for its “gritty realism.” The movie is a direct adaptation of that game, and it more than does it justice, even surpassing it in many ways.

Like the 2013 game (which itself was a major series reboot), the 2018 Tomb Raider movie follows a younger, less experienced Lara Croft in an origin story that sees her transforming by necessity into the skilled adventurer who gamers know and love. The film does a great job providing plausible explanations for Lara’s many talents; as a young bicycle courier and amateur MMA fighter in London, Lara has the reflexes and athleticism she’ll later use to scale rock walls and parkour her way through ancient tombs. And Vikander totally sells every punch, leap, and plunge, her amazingly chiseled muscles flexing and straining impressively throughout the movie.

Lara’s father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), has been missing for several years when we catch up with her in the movie. But she hasn’t yet signed the papers that would give her control of his vast business empire and wealthy estate, out of a combination of determined independence and a stubborn refusal to admit he really isn’t coming back. When she discovers new clues to where he disappeared to, she pawns what little she has (to a very funny Nick Frost) and hurls herself headlong in search of him.

That means heading to coastal Asia, where she tracks down (a little too easily, but whatever) the same boat that her dad chartered seven years earlier. She convinces the captain, Lu Ren (the underused but great Daniel Wu), to take her to the dangerous Devil’s Sea, where her father’s been stranded alongside the ruthless mercenary Mathias Vogel (the perfectly despicable Walton Goggins).

Tomb Raider suffers slightly from trying to cram too much in. It’s stuffed full of action sequences, at least one of which probably should have been cut (the early chase scene where some kids rob her, maybe?). There’s a cold open featuring her dad’s voiceover explaining the mythology of the deadly Japanese goddess Himiko as maps and etchings scroll by on the screen, a tedious info dump that, incredibly, is then repeated later in the film when she uncovers all his research. And while the movie spends plenty of time establishing Lara as a character, it spends considerably less on the villain, Vogel, who remains fairly two-dimensional despite some quick lines about wanting to get off the island and see his family again.

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Any empathy you might have felt for Vogel is derailed when he compares Lara to his daughters while being extremely creepy toward her. Thankfully, Lara is never explicitly threatened with sexual violence in this movie, which you might consider an improvement from some of the game’s more ambiguous scenes. On the other hand, when a lone young woman is being hunted and restrained by multiple beefy, exclusively male bad guys, the implication–the possibility it might happen, despite it being unstated–remains. Some viewers might find it disappointing that Tomb Raider doesn’t totally overcome that subtext, while others will simply consider it realistic.

But even when this movie threatens to sink in some areas, Vikander buoys the whole thing up admirably. The Ex Machina and The Danish Girl actress clearly put an incredible amount of physical work into making this character believable. It paid off in action scenes that feel just possible enough, even when they verge on unbelievable. Many of these, including a harrowing trip down river rapids toward a towering waterfall, are ripped straight from the game, to which the movie owes a great deal. Seeing them play out onscreen is fun for game fans, but they’re not done simply for the sake of lip service, and non-gaming moviegoers should be just as engrossed.

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Vikander also brings her considerable emotional range to the role, lending Lara the right amounts of vulnerability and raw feeling when required. Her ability to switch from a young woman who misses her father to a stealthy bow-wielding killing machine–and back again, multiple times–is impressive.

Her general skepticism, too, plays a huge part in grounding this movie in reality. She finds it just as implausible as you or I would that an ancient Queen of Death is going to spring out of her tomb and murder everyone on the planet; Lara isn’t there to stop the curse, but to find and/or rescue her father, who she believes is at least partially insane for believing Himiko poses a real threat to the world. That aspect of her character pays off effectively by the movie’s end, and it’s one of the things that most sets this incarnation of Tomb Raider apart.

Maybe the weirdest thing about this movie–good or bad–is how closely it follows the plot of one predecessor in the “archaeological adventure” genre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In each movie, a reluctant, skeptical adventurer uses their missing father’s research to track him down, inadvertently delivering that research directly into the hands of ruthless foes. They then must temporarily team up with said enemies to ensure their father’s safety, using the research to pass a series of booby-trapped trials and reach a mythical something-or-other deep in the bowels of a long lost temple.

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Tomb Raider holds up well on its own–and next to the 2013 game on which it’s based–but understandably, it can’t really compare with the classic movie it copies most heavily. This juxtaposition winds up especially unfavorable for Tomb Raider when you realize that unlike Indiana Jones, Lara Croft has no iconic (or even recognizable) theme music. This movie has plenty of fist pump moments, but you’ll eventually realize they’re not as impactful without that memorable “dun-dun-dun-duhhh!”

Nevertheless, Tomb Raider is a great video game adaptation and a decent action movie on its own, elevated by smart story choices and a winning performance from Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. Here’s hoping she’s down for a sequel.

The GoodThe Bad
Alicia Vikander is fantastic as Lara CroftLack of iconic music
Movie stays surprisingly groundedSome characters could be better fleshed out
Action and fight scenes are well doneToo many info dump scenes
The right amount of game references and homage

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Author: Michael Rougeau

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