There’s a general consensus among critics and fans that there is no possible way to adapt a video game to a good movie. The mediums simple don’t align, one being often a lengthy interactive narrative experience driven by the user that requires choice and critical thinking, while the other is a brief passive viewing experience bound by restrictions that simply cannot translate well what the other offers. That doesn’t mean studios haven’t tried with dozens of movies over the decades that have mostly met with disappointment, either due to low budgets, poor direction, lack of connective stories, or outright misrepresentation of the source material.
The Tomb Raider video game series in easily one of the most recognizable titles in the industry, with one of the most famous characters in all of gaming, Lara Croft, the buxom, gun-toting explorer headlining no less than twenty games, beginning in 1996. She’s evolved quite a bit in those years, becoming much less cartoonish and far more grounded and believable, especially beginning with the 2013 reboot from developer Crystal Dynamics. The game was a massive critical success, made so by its deep story, visual storytelling, commitment to its mechanics, smart puzzle design, and above all, a terrific voice and motion capture performance by Camilla Luddington. I played it. It was amazing.
The game inspired the 2018 film of the same name, itself a reboot of the 2003 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider starring Angelina Jolie. While Jolie’s film embraced the over-the-top elements of the earlier games, the new film held true to the standards set by the latest game releases. Directed by Roar Uthaug and written by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, it stars Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft and was a solid box office success, with mostly positive critical reviews. Let’s see how it holds up.
The story centers on a young Croft, working as a bike messenger and trying to deal with the disappearance of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), a very wealthy and famed archeologist. Lara believes he is still alive, though those in control of his estate (cool cameo by the legendary Dereck Jacobi) think otherwise and warn Lara she must accept this and receive her inheritance or lose the Croft manor and holdings. She does and then finds a secret room at the house where she discovers a hidden message left by her father, telling of a long buried shaman queen named Himiko with extraordinary powers, and that Lara must destroy his research and accept his loss.
She doesn’t, and instead, travels to China to find him, surviving a mugging and then worse, a terrible shipwreck that leads her into the hands of Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a cruel explorer looking for exactly what Lara’s father is trying to keep hidden. Taking the research she was meant to burn, Vogel now has a direct path to what he believes is a tomb of great treasure but is in fact an ancient seal meant to suppress evil. Can Lara stop him, save her father, and the slaves Vogel has working to excavate? Count on it.
I already wrote about the futility in casting Lara Croft, but I have to admit, Vikander is a smart choice. She’s lean, powerful, and one of the most dynamic actors of her generation. She is also one-hundred percent every single reason why you should watch this film, her approach to Croft fully in line with what the very talented Luddington established in the game. While the story naturally gets big and edges toward the absurd, Vikander is incredibly grounded, bringing an astonishing humanity to who Croft is and how her experience impacts her choices.
There are several moments that make that obvious, but I think it’s best punctuated by a moment where she comes face-to-face with death, and while that is something fairly standard in movies like this, the way Vikander brings that urgency to the screen is incredibly powerful. Story-wise, this is Lara’s first kill, and it’s heavy, dark, and ferocious, set up by a smart start to the film where it’s echoed here. Croft is in the jungle alone, at night, fighting an armed mercenary, and it comes down to her against him in a life-or-death struggle where one false move could be the end. It reminds me of a fight in Robert Redford‘s Three Days of the Condor, in how it is staged, knowing that the two facing each other have no choice but to go to the end.
A lot of critics took to bashing how badly Croft got battered about before recovering so quickly, which is a sure indication that they have no idea what the game it is sourcing is about. 2013’s Tomb Raider made it a thing where Lara found herself in aggressively hard situations, often getting tore up in the process (one of the funniest things about the game is the death animations for Lara when players failed to time their actions right – whole YouTube clips highlighting them are still available). This was clearly something the filmmakers embraced, the brutality of getting through a Tomb Raider adventure rife with physical hurdles part of the fun of bringing it to the big screen. The good thing is how well Vikander makes it seem so real. And honestly, criticizing the film for how much damage she takes and how fast she recovers is a little silly as it’s a staple of the genre when led by male actors.
Either way, the movie isn’t perfect, with a bad guy who is isn’t given much motivation other than being mad in the head, never realizing that even while being a puppet to those in power, his approach would be far more successful if he would treat his people better. Also, the action does become rather static as it heads for the end, the film much better in the first half than the second, especially when concentrating on Croft’s relationship to her father. Still, the movie is gorgeous with exciting visuals and a genuine sense of place. A sequence on a crashed World War II bomber is breathtaking and an excellent homage to a key moment in the game.
The Coronavirus pandemic has delayed the filming of a much-needed sequel, and perhaps it won’t ever get made, but there’s still plenty of reason to celebrate this reboot. Good action, a fun story, and a genuinely sensational performance from Vikander make this a game-to-movie adaptation one of the best ever made. Recommended.