By rights, “Tomb Raider” ought to be a terrible movie. It’s the latest in a legacy of notoriously awful films based on video games which includes the “Silent Hill” and “Resident Evil” franchises, as well as the recent “Assassin’s Creed” and “Warcraft” adaptations.
That being said, I had a hard time hating “Tomb Raider” as much as I had expected.
I don’t want to suggest that it’s a great film, or even a good one. It is chock full of obligatory one-dimensional side characters, tired cliches, and laughable one-liners. But I can’t help feeling that I had some fun as I watched it.
The story is simple enough, and you’ll surely be one step ahead of the plot at every turn as you watch. Lara Croft (played by Alicia Vikander) is a tough, smart, athletic young woman who wanders through life listlessly, still unable to come to terms with the mysterious disappearance of her father (played by Dominic West) seven years prior.
Lara stumbles upon her father’s underground lair, where she discovers his secret life as a world-traveling Indiana Jones-esque adventurer. His final message to her is through a video in which he implores her to destroy all of his research on Himiko, a mythical Japanese queen rumored to have supernatural powers of global destruction.
Being the natural-born adventurer she is, Lara travels to the island with sailor Lou Ren in tow to search for her missing father. Once there, she is captured by Matthias, the dangerous, nearly-crazy mercenary tasked by the evil global corporation, Trinity, with bringing the catastrophic powers of Himiko back to the mainland.
From there onwards, the plot consists of a predictable series of obstacles across which Lara must traverse in order to reach the heart of the tomb and protect the world from Himiko’s evil power.
The film runs much like a video game in this way, with jungle obstacles and puzzles to solve that increase in difficulty as Lara works through the levels of the tomb. Although my description thus far will probably make the plot seem drab, I actually think this is where the film succeeds.
“Tomb Raider” incorporates the genre of video games into the very fabric of the film in a way that feels fresh and original. Still an untested adventurer, Lara faces sure death in the middle of a violent sea storm.
Lara looks around her in search of an escape route. Glancing upward, she notices a metal railing attached to the ship above her. The camera tracks her gaze as she makes the decision to jump up, grab the rail, and swing to safety.
This scene plays like the tutorial level of a video game. Lara must learn about the world in which she operates by completing tasks that will later become second nature to her.
These moments of video-game mimicry are found throughout and are constantly charming. My favorite scene finds the rag-tag group trapped in a deadly puzzle within the tomb.
As the floor slowly falls from beneath them, they must collect brightly colored stones and place them, one by one, in front of a light source. When the right combination of colors is achieved, the floor stops falling, and a door opens, leading to the next puzzle.
This is a decidedly absurd premise. I found myself laughing as they frantically threw bright yellow, purple, and red stones around the room as through it made any sense.
But this is a characteristic video game situation, and the filmmakers translate it in literal terms on the screen. They find kitschy humor in the awkward weirdness of the video game universe and embrace it to create a campy, fun adventure romp.
Other video game movies take their premises far too seriously. Accordingly, “Tomb Raider” succeeds when it avoids this trap, and fails when it succumbs.
The worst element of “Tomb Raider” is the relationship between Lara and her father. Although the plot element is pivotal in motivating Lara to travel to the island, the execution onscreen feels forced and tiresome. West is a capable actor, but he struggles to piece together a poorly written character.
For example, Lara manages to find her father almost immediately upon reaching the island, yet their reunion is infuriatingly nonsensical. Lara weeps to find her father alive, but her father frowns and scolds her for not burning his research on Himiko.
For the rest of the movie, they are, confusingly, quite angry at each other, and West ends up dragging every scene down with his relentless frowning.
The filmmakers missed an opportunity, too, with the villain, Matthias. I would love to have seen them capitalize on the tendency for video game villains to be eccentric and charismatic.
But Matthias, like Lara’s father, scowls through every scene, exhibiting no distinction of character beyond his desire to leave the island. The role could have been accomplished with as much finesse by a piece of bread holding a pistol.
This is not a good movie. But I think it deserves some amount of praise for managing to avoid utter catastrophe. For your latest dose of mindless adventure cinema, catch “Tomb Raider.”