The Tomb Raider franchise has always been driven by the power of its lead character, Lara Croft. Over the course of 20+ years, the adventurous heroine has cemented herself as an action icon. Although the previous film adaptations of Lara in the early 2000s certainly had their merits, they didn’t quite give fans the definitive on-screen version of the spelunking badass they’ve always wanted.
Well, Tomb Raider (2018) has that problem solved.
All Hail Alicia Vikander
Alicia Vikander’s role as Lara Croft in this film is so sharp that it could stab you. Taking inspiration from the recent rebooted version of the character, Vikander’s Lara Croft is strong but still vulnerable, awesome without seeming invincible, and more fun than most of the games that star her character.
What makes Vikander so perfect in the role? It’s not just her aesthetic look or her action hero attitude (which are both A+). Vikander understands that Lara is a character that isn’t capable of growing up yet because of the disappearance of her father, Richard Croft (a dependably warm Dominic West). Vikander plays Lara with the intensity of a rebellious teenager and her emotional journey over the course of the story is sold entirely on Vikander’s acting skills.
If we had an award for awesome, tough, and well-rounded female action heroes — that award would definitely be called a Ripley, right? — Vikander would easily deserve a nomination. It’s her strength as Lara in Tomb Raider that makes the movie work as well as it does.
The Other Treasures
To be honest, there are other strong elements to Tomb Raider. The first act of the movie isn’t as rushed as most action films and gives the story ample time to introduce Lara, her backstory, and where her head is at when we meet her. Seeing Lara trying to eke out a living as a delivery person and training at a boxing gym helps endear us to her from the start. If the movie didn’t have this sizable chunk at the beginning, some of the film’s later flaws would stick out a lot more.
There are also a number of action beats that are genuinely thrilling. Specifically, a sequence that involves Lara using stealth to infiltrate an enemy camp is the highlight of the film’s action. Director Roar Uthaug shoots the scene with longer-than-usual takes that follow Lara from behind. It captures the third person perspective of the video games extremely well. Basically, any action sequence that focuses on Lara instead of bigger spectacle really shines.
The other big success is the film’s tone. Never once does the movie feel like it’s devolving into cartoonish antics or knowing silliness. There is a surprisingly grisly feel — well, not surprising if you’ve played the newest games — that helps punch home some of the nastier moments. No spoilers, but there are at least a few scenes that feel like there was an R-rated version left on the cutting room floor. The fact that the movie even teeters close to that kind of intensity is worth noting.
Plus, fans of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade will get a kick out of this film’s clear homages to that story. Lara Croft has always been partially inspired by Indiana Jones, and the third act climax is a huge love letter to that third film without ever being self-referential. Even the entire father/child relationship in Tomb Raider is reflective of the one shared by Indiana and Dr. Henry Jones.
With all that said, there are a couple of elements that make Tomb Raider a little shaky. Probably the most prominent is the lead villain, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Though he has an understandable motivation — he’s just trying to get off the isolated island where Lara’s father disappeared — it’s so second thought that it’s almost nonexistent. It’s not helped by Walton Goggins and his decision to play the part as incredibly tired. Goggins is a phenomenal actor who excels at playing in-your-face roles like Boyd Crowder on Justified. Vogel is an exhausted villain and that comes across as sleepy with Goggins.
It’s also necessary to bring up the bigger action setpieces. Whenever the focus pulls further away from Lara and widens to showcase giant destruction, the movie distances itself from the viewer in ways that are in danger of pulling you completely out of the experience. For example, Lara gets thrown into a raging river that ends in a waterfall. The sequence is pretty riveting until Lara snags onto a dilapidated plane that’s hanging on the edge of the waterfall. As soon as this takes place, we lose her sense of grounding in the scene and it just becomes about this plane.
There is also a lot of clunky ways that exposition gets delivered in Tomb Raider. Lara is using her father’s notes to lead her to the island where he disappeared. We get a ton of crucial plot points delivered to us in quick lines of voiceover dialogue from Richard, including the setup for the evil organization whose shadow is cast over the entire film. Not to mention that the movie repeats exposition that we learned in the opening seconds of the film (which is also delivered by Richard’s voiceover). If the film found a more economical and effective way of informing the audience, it would help make the entire experience more cohesive.
It doesn’t help that the film moves at such a breathless pace once Lara reaches the island. It’s like someone turns the movie on 2x speed once the first act is over. Granted, that prevents the film from ever being boring but it also makes the rest of the character elements suffer in comparison to the first act.
Is Tomb Raider Good?
It’s easily the best video game adaptation we’ve gotten yet, though the bar for that is admittedly very low. So much of that is thanks to Alicia Vikander killing it as Lara Croft. Along with some tight action scenes and a commitment to its tone, Tomb Raider works well enough to recommend. If the villain was better and the action was even more streamlined, this could be something really great.
Here’s hoping they iron those problems out in a sequel. Because Alicia Vikander definitely, DEFINITELY deserves a sequel.