The following is a review of the 2018 film Tomb Raider initially composed for my personal newsletter. It has been lightly edited for a broader audience, but should still be interpreted predominately as me expressing my personal thoughts on the film rather than a foolhardy attempt at “objective” evaluation.
Video game movies have an impressively awful track record, particularly with critics, and if early reviews are any indication it’s unlikely that this film-based-on-a-game-inspired-by-a-franchise will break that record. However, good grief does it try. Alicia Vikander’s performance is nothing short of phenomenal, selling the evolution of young Lara Croft from curious twenty-something adventurer to hardened killer in two hours arguably better than the game it’s based on ever did. Beyond that, the film’s most polarizing components will likely be the numerous set pieces it lifts from the game: from shipwrecks to deadly rapids, spike traps to ice axes, Tomb Raider feels at times like a sizzle reel for the 2013 game. And while that is great for someone like me who loved the game, it may be off-putting for those with no prior knowledge of Lara or who are not keen on the recent direction of the franchise.
I saw Tomb Raider opening night, and shortly after getting home I posted a photo in support of the film. That unwavering and immediate support has made me acutely aware of subsequent negative reviews and makes me feel somewhat compelled to defend the film against them. Because whether or not it is a “good movie,” I really loved Tomb Raider. What I’m most wrestling with is how we ought to judge adaptations, particularly of games — source material with dozens of hours to develop characters and plotlines, and which are as much predicated on player interaction and mechanics as they are vehicles for story. I think it’s fair to question the wisdom of even making film adaptations of games. But if they are going to exist, on what merits should they be judged? Do we evaluate them as films — which, of course, they are — or on the basis of their fidelity to source material, even if it resists linear, hands-off presentation?
I also think it is perfectly fair to question whether Tomb Raider would have been better trying to tell its own brand new Lara Croft story rather than explicitly drawing on and re-presenting scenes from a game. That may have alienated strong fans of the games, but those fans may well be alienated anyway by the places where the film takes liberties and significantly departures from plot points in the game. Yet catering to cinematic audiences — that is, people who will see Tomb Raider because it’s an action movie or because they loved The Danish Girl, not because they like or know anything about the games — almost requires this to be an origin story, and it’s hard to argue for a complete reworking of Lara’s origins after she has so recently had them reworked multiple times.
And so we go with an adaptation that borrows heavily from the game without duplicating it, with enough preface material to establish the general things that make Lara who she is: her rebellious spirit, her antagonistic relationship with the family wealth, her physical prowess, her clever personality. And then it’s a speedrun: finding Yamatai, facing and escaping capture, acquiring weaponry, and attempting to thwart Trinity. The pacing is brisk to the point of jarring, and leaves little room for nearly any of the other characters to breathe. Which is a shame, because a decent supporting cast certainly had more to offer than it had a chance to give here. On the other hand, this may have been a blessing, because the sidelining of everyone else in order to focus on Lara almost (almost) justifies the absence of some of the most memorable and effective characters in the 2013 game, especially Sam and Jonah.
Ultimately, Tomb Raider is working under a lot of pressure. It’s trying to relaunch a franchise still memorably (if winkingly) associated with Angelina Jolie; refreshen an already-told origin tale; and condense a sprawling exploration-driven experience into a tight, brief plot; all while juggling the difficult task of turning a happy-go-lucky college-ager into a survivalist in an under-120-minute window. And while it’d be dishonest to say the film succeeds at everything it tries to be, I think it’s also important to ask what else it could have done with so many boxes to check.
Alicia Vikander pours her Oscar-winning heart into this performance and I have no doubt that, if given the chance to thrive in a film untethered by the obligations of a daddy-issues origin story, she (and the Tomb Raider franchise) can breathe new life into a dusty genre whose most recent offerings have included Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a surprising amount of Nicolas Cage, and whatever that disaster with Tom Cruise was supposed to be. I desperately want to see future Tomb Raider movies, and so critical reception aside I am really pulling for this one to pay off at the box office. Meanwhile, if you like the games at all, if you like Vikander, or if you just want a fun popcorn flick packed with action and adventure (if not much else), go see Tomb Raider this weekend.
Note: Featured Image taken from the official Tomb Raider movie Instagram account.