Tough Alicia Vikander deserves better than stale 'Tomb Raider'

 cnet.com  3/14/2018 5:00:04 PM   Richard Trenholm

It's fair to say the new "Tomb Raider" movie accurately re-creates the experience of a video game.

To be precise, it's like when you buy a new game and you can't wait to play it. So you race home with the game in your hand and tear the wrapping off and stick the disc in your games console and it takes what seems like forever to boot up. Then there's a logo screen that sits there for ages apparently not doing anything. Then your console decides it has to update itself. You're bouncing up and down on the sofa -- just let me play the darn game! Finally the game is ready. You seize the controller.

The game starts with a cut scene.

And another. And another.

All you want to do is play the damn game and it won't let you!

That's what this 2018 big screen reboot of the long-running archeology-'em-up video game is like.

Directed by Norwegian Roar Uthaug and largely based on the 2013 prequel, the new film follows a young version of ruin-robbing aristo Lara Croft tracing her antiquity-obsessed lost father to a mysterious island. Once on the island, surrounded by desperate mercenaries and haunted by an ancient curse, there are some decent thrills. Star Alicia Vikander gamely throws herself across every chasm in the vicinity, sorts out bad guys with a bow and arrow and generally takes every opportunity to show off how much time she's spent at the gym lately.

The problem is it takes absolutely foreeeeverrrr to reach that point. It's an hour before we make it to the island, with the first half of the film playing out like that dreaded introductory cut scene that just won't let you get on with it. It's nice to see Lara given a backstory about her family business and her refusal to inherit a vast fortune, but we're repeatedly beaten over the head with it. Her dead dad has five -- five! -- expositional voiceovers, most of which repeat the same information.

To liven up all this backstory a couple of tacked-on action scenes are dropped in out of nowhere, feeling like those annoying introductory mini-games where you run around a garage learning how to duck.

I did quite enjoy an early London-set bicycle race, but mainly because it was filmed round where I live. Lara is working as a Deliveroo-style food courier. (How very modern.) But perhaps in a nod to the era of the original game, the ensuing bike chase is the most '90s thing you've ever seen. Thumping dance music plays as Lara zips around the streets in x-treme fashion, nearly knocking over the square normies bimbling about on the pavement. Get out the way, normies! If you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much room! Oh look, there's my local pub.

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Lara swings into action.

Ilze Kitshoff

So eventually Lara sets out on her quest. There's a nice irony to the first tomb she raids, which sends her off to Hong Kong for another airlifted-in action scene involving some street thugs. Apparently you can't go anywhere foreign without nasty foreigners trying to mug you and stab you and generally ruin your stay, which will be news to the millions of people who live and work and do touristy things in Hong Kong all the time.

Instead of leaving a strongly worded review on TripAdvisor, Lara boards a boat and sails straight into a storm. At last, things pick up. Finally on the island, Lara faces off with some mercenaries who plan to use her father's research for their own nefarious ends.

My favourite thing about the film is the hint that the bad guys, led by dead-eyed Walton Goggins, are living in some kind of sweat-soaked Herzogian nightmare, spiralling into madness after seven years combing a godforsaken island for unknown treasure.

Sadly, having shaved off the 2013 game's supporting characters and the depth of its story, the filmmakers didn't turn to Werner Herzog's jungle-madness epic, "Fitzcarraldo". Instead, they were inspired by "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade". When I say "inspired", I mean they straight-up steal the plot, except where Indy faced trials that saw him grow as a character, Lara juggles some coloured crystals. I won't go into spoilers but it's literally beat for beat. The bad guy even has the same name!

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This version of Lara Croft has never met a chasm she couldn't dangle over.

My word, that's brazen. If you're going to copy and paste, at least remember to change the names, guys. Maybe they think anyone watching will be either too young to remember, or will be so bored by the first half they'll just be glad to be reminded of a better movie.

Despite this cynical pilfering, there are some decent action moments on show once the reboot lumbers into its second hour. The highlight is Lara getting stuck in a disintegrating plane suspended over a waterfall, which features various nerve-shredding frying pan/fire scares that feel sweatily real.

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During these action scenes, Vikander's strength is the film's biggest strength. When she's fighting, climbing and dangling -- there's a lot of dangling -- she brings a winning physical grit and vitality to the film. Unfortunately the use of computer-generated effects frequently undercuts that visceral connection to the hero. At one point Lara crashes from a great height into some undergrowth, rolls and comes up running, and you can literally see the join when it switches from CG Lara to the real thing.

So maybe die-hard Lara Croft fans will enjoy the action, when it arrives. Maybe a few people will be inspired to follow Vikander into learning MMA or, I dunno, going back in time to be a totally radical cycle courier. Hey, maybe Vikander's muscular performance will be enough to secure the sequel this film spends so much energy setting up.

But this latest crack at "Tomb Raider" sags with an overstretched first hour, tacked-on action scenes and lackadaisical piracy from better movies. If they do make a sequel, it really needs to level up.

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