For a film based on a video game, the first thing you notice about Tomb Raider is that it doesn’t feel like a video game at all. Instead, director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) and his team have opted to make an action-adventure story that feels somewhat rooted in reality—this Lara Croft (played with steely determination, with hints of vulnerability by Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander) gets bruised and battered on her first outing as a puzzle-solving amateur archaeologist who just happens to practice mixed martial arts and knows how to shoot a bow and arrow with alarming accuracy.
Not unlike the young heroine in A Wrinkle in Time, Croft lost her father to curiosity that got the best of him. In this case, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West) went to an uncharted island in the Pacific looking for the tomb of the legendary “Mother of Death” named Himiko. The elder Croft believed that uncovering her long-buried body would unleash a massive body count upon the world, but when he went to find it (presumably to preserve the tomb, not open it), he never returned, presumed dead by everyone except Lara, who steadfastly refused to legally declare him dead. At the beginning of the film, Lara, now a 21-year-old bike messenger, is living the life of a loner, in debt and struggling for cash. If she signs the papers saying her father is dead, she inherits millions, but she won’t do it, despite the urging of two of the company’s well-meaning executives (played by Kirstin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi).
Just as she’s about to sign the paperwork, Lara gets a clue that her long-gone father has sent her way in case he goes missing, and her hopes that he’s alive are reignited. She sets off first to Hong Kong to get a boat to take her to the deadly hidden island, and there she meets Lu Ren (Daniel Wu from “Into the Badland” and the recent Geostorm) the son of the skipper who took her father originally. By this point in the film, we’ve already witnessed a seriously impressive bike chase through London and an equally thrilling foot chase through a Hong Kong harbor, and neither actually have anything to do with the main story, but they do establish that Lara is a gifted athlete as well as a fighter. The powers of deduction that guide her to the island are also a nice character trait, adding to the number of reasons to find Lara impressive.
Tomb Raider is far from a character study, but it’s admirable that the filmmakers made Lara something more than just a curvy, sexualized figure with zero body fat in revealing outfits. Vikander is an action machine, doing many of her own stunts and not afraid to get dirty and knocked around. It may seem unnecessarily brutal to see Lara take so much abuse, but as we learn from an early training session in the ring, she can take a punch and give back three times as hard.
When Lara and Lu Ren finally reach the island, they are able to find the tomb entrance, but they also discover that it’s being sought after by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been on the island for seven years looking for it. He forces Lara’s hand and she is compelled to lead a party into its seemingly endless catacombs with deadly booby traps to keep people just like them from breaking in. While Tomb Raider hints at supernatural elements to the Mother of Death’s curse, the truth is much more science-based, as Lara discovers. It’s rare in this movie that things get preposterous (with the exception of a couple of insane, physics-defying leaps that Lara makes). Some of the action toward the back half of the film gets a bit more mundane (gun fights, arrows flying, explosions, and some hand-to-hand combat that doesn’t amount to much), but I liked the way the story itself wrapped up.
There’s something wonderfully sincere and old-fashioned about Tomb Raider that makes it a far more accessible adventure than what Angelina Jolie did in her Lara Croft movies from the early 2000s. Vikander and director Uthaug do a worthy job of bringing out the flawed, human qualities of Lara without taking anything away from her as a bona fide action hero. Still, much of what transpires in the tomb is the product of generic special effects that make what should have been awe-inspiring or even terrifying into something run of the mill and forgettable. Honestly, it all comes back to Vikander, who elevates the material just enough to give this one a passing grade and makes me curious to see what she does with the character if they do another film that moves away from the curse of the original story.