If ever a cinematic franchise in the making deserved the reboot treatment, it was probably Tomb Raider. The adventures of British Lady, Lara Croft, she of pixelated bosom, cut glass accent and frightening wealth, who so entranced video gamers in the late 1990’s, have not to date had the most auspicious history on the big screen.
For half a generation, Lara Croft was epitomised by Angelina Jolie. The bosom came naturally, the accent less so, but she certainly gave it her best shot in two pictures adapting Eidos’ massively successful female replica of the Indiana Jones series – firstly 2001’s slick, hollow Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, in which Jolie-Lara fought Ser Jorah Mormont who went looking for a magical triangle to stop time (or something) and later in 2003’s slick and, yes, hollow Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, in which Jolie-Lara again teamed up with (bellow it) GERARD BUTLER! to stop Mance Rayder (in yet another Game of Thrones connection) from unleashing Pandora’s Box. Not figuratively, you understand, but literally. *The* Pandora and her Box.
Suffice to say, despite fairly decent box office, neither of these films did anything to successfully lift the long-held ‘video game to movie’ curse which has swirled around adaptations of computer games to the big screen since their inception in the 1980’s. The rot undoubtedly started with the fetid 1993 take on Super Mario Bros (arguably the biggest game of the 80’s) and has festered ever since through a cornucopia of cinematic versions of beloved games, some of which were tackled by half-decent directors with fairly strong casts. Assassin’s Creed last year, helmed by Justin Kurzel and starring Michael Fassbender (both fresh off a great new take on Macbeth), was considered the Great Video Game Hope but, alas, it was critically panned. Mind you, I think that film is seriously underrated. But that’s another story. Back to Lara and her tombs…
As this brings us neatly to Her Ladyship and the wonderfully named Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider, which sets out with the lofty goal of *finally* translating a video game to the screen with anything considered value. For starters, it swops the past her prime Jolie for the fresh-faced Alicia Vikander as the raiding aristocrat herself and, immediately, you realise how smart a move this was. Granted, Vikander sounds like the Scandinavian she is trying to pass as a posh Brit like Jolie sounded like the American she is trying to pass as a posh Brit, but Vikander always has an effortless, quiet charm oozing out of her no matter what the role, and as Lara she’s no different. Even when she’s playing cycling cat & mouse games across London with a bunch of annoying hipsters, you can’t help but find her youthful cheek appealing.
She’s a different Lara from Jolie’s. Simon West’s first adaptation took a cue from the original Toby Gard Eidos games from the 90’s in which Lara is very much the dyed-in-the-wool raider, using her financial clout to explore the greatest mysteries of the world. Uthaug’s picture takes a great deal of a cue, both thematically and directly in terms of story, from the 2013 gritty video game reboot also called Tomb Raider by Crystal Dynamics – a game which featured Lara’s origin story, as she heads to the mystical island of Yamatai to expose the dangerous mystery of Himiko, an ancient Japanese sorceress. Though plenty of characters and incidental details have changed from game to movie, the same essential plot remains. The only connective tissue between this incarnation of Lara Croft and her predecessor are the daddy issues.
Lara being haunted by the death of her father, Lord Richard Croft, was always a key aspect to the formation of her character in the games themselves. In the Jolie films, the character was awkwardly played by a miscast Jon Voight (Jolie’s real-life father) with an accent which made Jolie herself sound like Judi Dench, but here Dominic West serves as a much more accurate, present depiction of Richard, who forms the basis of Lara’s entire journey toward becoming the eponymous ‘tomb raider’. Uthaug’s film is a classic father/daughter story, with Lara refusing to accept the loss of her father only to find she can only become ‘Lara Croft’, the woman we know, if she lets go of the bond with her sole remaining parent. The film wins points for making that dynamic as central to her origin story as it was in the games.
In many ways, Tomb Raider follows the same path well-trod before in other major cinematic franchises, such as Bond and Batman, in having the first film ‘create’ the Lara Croft with her ponytail and twin-gun swinging through exotic locations by building her up with a formative story. For Bond, in Casino Royale, it was the love and loss of Vesper Lynd which fashioned the hard, detached 007 we’ve always known. For Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, it was wandering the globe and being trained by Ra’s Al-Ghul which sowed the seeds toward him picking up the cowl. For Lara, it’s the search for her father on Yamatai and her consequent realisations about who she is and what she can do with her intelligence, brawn and (crucially) wealth, which establish what could be—if the film is a success—a brand new franchise in the making.
Tomb Raider, therefore, feels oddly old-fashioned in quite a comforting way. Heavily indebted to the Indiana Jones franchise, it effectively rips entire sequences and characters from both of those films. Walton Goggins’ heartless mercenary villain Matthais Vogel, despite partially stemming from the 2013 game, is Paul Freeman’s Belloq from Raiders of the Lost Ark even down to his dress sense (though lacking the barbed bon mots); Lara being forced to enter Himiko’s tomb and face challenges while a gun is pressed to Richard’s head is basically the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; even Lara’s reluctant boat Captain friend Lee trying to save the slave-workers on the island reminds you of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. It even eats at its own history, given the ultimate MacGuffin is quite similar to what lies in the aforementioned Pandora’s Box in The Cradle of Life. Yet despite this, the film works and engages on its own merits, reminding you more of 1980’s or 1990’s straight, down the line, adventure cinema with no frills.
What it lacks is the humour. This could be seen as a complaint, and I admittedly left the cinema feeling like the picture could have benefited with a bit more tongue in cheek levity, but on reflection (and in conversation with more hardened gamers than I), perhaps it was an intentional and logical creative choice. The rebooted Tomb Raider game does push the boundaries of children’s entertainment significantly, suggesting serious physical and sexual harm to Lara at the hands of the villains of the game (changed, incidentally, to more reflect the bad guys in reboot sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider). Though Uthaug’s film doesn’t stray into those waters, pitching the movie much more on the action adventure axis, had Lara been throwing around quips left, right and centre, it may well have taken something away from her central narrative arc.
These aspects could lie in the future. Tomb Raider very much positions itself ready for a franchise in the making, or at least a couple of sequels. The last few scenes work very hard (perhaps too hard) to suggest Kristin Scott-Thomas will be the arch villain of a prospective sequel (she could well turn out to be Atlantean nut-job Jacqueline Natla from the games in disguise), and places Vikander’s Lara at the point she could move toward the portrayal of Lara that Jolie gave in previous movies; slick, sexy, more confident, flirtatious and more at home with the one-liners and joie de vivre in exploring tombs than the younger, anguished Lara we see here.
Vikander certainly has the range to bring home both, and you may well leave this reboot hoping she gets the chance to develop and grow into the definitive Lara Croft for a new generation.