In the middle of Tomb Raider is a domino-chain action set piece that would not be out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) channels Steven Spielberg in this sequence, alternating between bursts of frenzied action and still moments of nail-biting peril in which the slightest movement could mean death, climaxing in a clever twist with just the right amount of panache. I laughed out loud in appreciation.
A moment later, our heroine, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), comes to rest, but she’s so badly injured that I felt my laughter had been out of place. It’s not like Indy taking a glancing bullet in the shoulder that makes him vulnerable; she’s gasping and moaning in desperate pain. Vikander frequently makes Lara’s exertions throughout the film just as urgent and anxious, which makes me wonder if she might be too good an actress, or too committed to the role, for the film’s good.
Based on a 2013 reboot of the iconic British video-game series, Tomb Raider is framed as an origin story. Not yet a wealthy, globetrotting archaeologist-adventurer, this Lara is an aimless young Londoner scraping by on odd jobs because she won’t sign the papers declaring her missing father dead and so claim her vast inheritance. When she does set off to Hong Kong, and thence to an uncharted island off the Japanese coast, it isn’t to raid tombs, but to follow clues to her father’s disappearance. Vikander worked hard to get into fighting shape for the role and reportedly did all her own stunts: a level of commitment reminiscent of Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible movies.
What makes the last couple of Mission: Impossible movies in particular work so well is that they’re fundamentally larks structured around well-crafted action set pieces. Ethan Hunt can and does get hurt, which lends urgency and suspense to the action sequences. But the audience winces and laughs at the same time. As hard as Hunt works to save the world, what draws us in is how hard Cruise works to entertain us. Likewise does Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies — not only the granddaddy of all movies of this type, but apparently the original inspiration for Lara Croft (first conceived as a male character with a whip and hat). For all the grimacing and aching, weary movements he adopts in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ford wears the role lightly.
Angelina Jolie, in her two outings in 2001 and 2003, played Lara as a fearless, invulnerable cartoon action figure who nailed every shot and stuck every landing without fail. In some ways her character was less an Indy knockoff than a James Bond parody, though as played by Jolie in tight short shorts and catsuits she was as much Bond Girl as 007 — an empowered action heroine who was also, much like the game avatar, fantasy eye candy for male fans. Times have changed for both video games and movies, and Vikander’s character isn’t hypersexualized or really sexualized at all. She now wears sensible cargo pants, and the familiar tank top doesn’t seem exploitative without the padding Jolie wore. Uthaug and cinematographer George Richmond film her pretty much the same way a male action hero would be shot, demonstrating that not objectifying an action heroine isn’t solely the purview of female filmmakers like Wonder Woman’s Patty Jenkins.
As regards the intensity of the action, though, Vikander’s performance seems like an overcorrection. Jolie’s Lara was perhaps having too much fun for much sense of urgency, but Vikander’s Lara isn’t really having fun at all, which makes it hard for the audience to have much fun either. In some ways the action is a little more realistic than in many action movies. Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow can mop the floor with almost any number of armed and trained adversaries without breaking a sweat, but when Lara squares off against male antagonists she’s generally the underdog. Here Vikander’s ability to convey desperation is an asset, and there’s a quiet but striking emotional moment when, for the first time, she’s forced to take a life in self-defense. Yet it’s also an action cartoon, never more glaringly than in Lara’s very last stunt, a feat worthy of Wonder Woman. That tonal uncertainty runs through the movie. I think I was invited to laugh in that central set piece I mentioned above by Lara’s exasperated “Really?” in the middle of things. It’s a rare moment approaching levity that is betrayed by the injury Lara sustains moments later.
The action hero with absent-daddy issues has become a cliché in recent years, particularly in the Marvel juggernaut, but in fairness, Lara’s claim to that theme was staked long ago. Dominic West plays Lord Richard Croft, a business magnate with a secret life unknown to Lara. What she discovers is that after her mother died, her father became obsessed with finding evidence of life after death — a quest that eventually led him to a legendary Japanese figure, a queen with a touch of death named Himiko said to have been buried alive on a remote island called Yamatai somewhere in the Devil’s Sea. (The Devil’s Sea is a real location in the Pacific with a mystique similar to the Bermuda Triangle, and Queen Himiko of Yamatai is a semi-legendary Japanese shamaness queen.) Becoming convinced that Himiko’s deadly secret must not fall into the wrong hands, Richard inexplicably decides to seek the undiscovered island of Yamatai to, I don’t know, make sure her tomb stays undiscovered somehow. (“Or he could just stay home,” my 14-year-old daughter whispered to me, making me wonder whether the screenwriters know any 14-year-old girls.)
Though she rejects her father’s superstitious ideas, Lara’s quest leads her to retrace his footsteps, making things worse in the process. (If all this is starting to sound like more than one Indy movie, especially Last Crusade, bingo.) “The wrong hands,” it turns out, belong to a sinister mysterious organization called “Trinity” that aspires to “control the supernatural.” Leading Trinity’s Himiko research team is a ruthless psychopath named Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) whom I’m tempted to say brings little to the party, except I don’t think the filmmakers understand that with a movie like this they ought to be throwing a party.
In Hong Kong Lara finds a drunken, impoverished sailor named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) with a personal connection to her father’s disappearance and pays him to bring her to Yamatai. (This was mercifully the only moment in the film when I thought of Martin Scorsese’s Silence.) It’s kind of nice that Ren turns out to be a worthier character than his introduction suggests. I also appreciate a moment late in the film in which a large number of nameless, exploited Japanese characters make a decision that could have subordinated their stories to Lara’s, but what they do isn’t for her sake, but for Ren’s and for his father.
In the end — if you don’t want to be spoiled, stop reading now — what looks like it will inevitably turn into yet another Mummy retread takes an unexpected turn that is possibly the movie’s only surprise — and an oddly limiting choice. Like the Indy movies, the Tomb Raider franchise has always trafficked in the paranormal and supernatural. This movie sets up a hopeful series pitting Lara against a malevolent organization entirely invested in the supernatural. The denouement is an open gambit toward a sequel — a gambit of the increasingly ubiquitous and tiresome sort that prevents most franchise films nowadays from committing to telling a story start to finish — pitting Lara against this campaign to “control the supernatural.”
Given that, the climax on Yamatai goes in an odd direction. I’m not saying I want another undead queen of evil lurching from her ancient tomb, but what alternative would be better? Whatever it might be, the filmmakers haven’t found it. The truly melancholy thing about the climax is the inevitability that, whatever the truth of Himiko turns out to be, Richard’s original motive of looking for reassurance about his late wife’s survival will fall completely by the wayside. Is death the end, or are the tombs of earth raided by heaven? I don’t need the movie to give an answer, but I want Richard to care about the answer.
There’s a gold-engraved invitation toward the end for Richard to have a line about potentially learning the truth of his wife’s fate after all. Alas, Tomb Raider isn’t interested enough in this most universal of questions to bother with it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.