Approximately 22 years ago, the Tomb Raider video game debuted on PC, the original Sony PlayStation, and the much-vaunted Sega Saturn to rave reviews and enthusiastic gamers everywhere, who embraced the third-person adventure game and its butt-kicking protagonist, Lara Croft. For all the talk of progressive casting in modern filmmaking, video games have been featuring females front and center for a long time, now. Nintendo has Samus Aran from the Metroid series. The Resident Evil franchise features a plethora of leading ladies, most notably Jill Valentine and Claire Redfield. Fighting games such as Street Fighter has Chun-Li whereas Mortal Kombat features the likes of Sonya Blade and Kitana. But, as enduring and beloved as each of those characters have become, none have had the impact on pop culture that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft can lay claim to.
Lara has become probably the most iconic video game character of the last twenty years, perhaps only eclipsed in total by some of Nintendo’s properties (Mario, Donkey Kong) and, of course, Pac-Man. That’s not bad company. Paramount Studios famously released a pair of films based on the property that starred Angelina Jolie in 2001 and 2003. The first of the two, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider did well for itself at the box office but ultimately felt flat and uninspired. Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life was somewhat better received, creatively, but the damage had been done by the poor reception to its predecessor and it underperformed at the box office, effectively ending that particular attempt at a longstanding franchise.
When Square Enix, the developer of the video game series, rebooted the games with a new installment in 2013, the opportunity to do the same with the films couldn’t be overlooked. MGM acquired the rights and made the call to take that very route. I had the opportunity to catch a very early look at the film and, since there was surprisingly no review embargo enacted upon us, here I am with what might be the very first review you’ll find of 2018’s Tomb Raider. (I would have respected any review embargo but I really feel like I should worry more about such things on the day that I earn my first cent for doing this. All for free, folks!)
MGM need not worry, though, as they have nothing to fear from me; I had a blast with this movie. Helming the film is Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, in his first major directorial outing. We’ve seen such efforts go well and we’ve seen them go sideways, but Uthaug demonstrates a natural aptitude for helming this type of picture. Some common pitfalls for moderately-budgeted (at least compared to, say, the Marvel Studios productions) action films is that the groundwork required to bring us to the action is droll and then the action underwhelms due to not having all the money the director needs and/or desires. Uthaug deals with this latter issue like a seasoned veteran. Though it’s clear that the scale of the action is not on the level of some other recent blockbusters, it’s appropriately sized for a Lara Croft adventure and also beautifully staged and breathtakingly choreographed.
But notice that I said that Uthaug handled the latter issue of underwhelming action. What about the former issue of unengaging exposition and character development? Uthaug doesn’t need to worry about that because he and MGM made the brilliant choice to cast Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. I’m not going to say that Vikander carries the majority of the film on her own. Not exactly. The script presents her with a story that, while not groundbreaking, is a compelling enough mix of The Da Vinci Code and H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. This is an old school, escapist adventure story that can be enjoyed by anyone. And the dialogue, while not as sharp as something one might hear from Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino, is natural and believable while also being interesting.
But that’s the off-screen talent that’s supporting Vikander. As far as what we see on-screen, I’m absolutely going to say that Vikander carries the majority of the film on her own. No one else in the film does a poor job; everyone carries their weight. But Vikander is given the overwhelming preponderance of said weight and she tosses it around with ease and with joy. While Vikander may look every bit the part of the rebooted video game version of Lara Croft as Angelina Jolie did the original, she injects much greater life and charisma into the character than Jolie ever came close to approaching. Even if the dialogue had been as flat and dull as in that original film (it’s not), and the action had been bland and forgettable (it’s definitely not), Vikander is so much fun to watch, that it still would have been okay.
This film essentially functions as a prequel to the Lara Croft we know from the video games. This is Lara at the beginning of her tomb raiding career. She’s still earning her confidence. She’s still developing her taste for the adventure. But she loves life. And she loves her family. Her motivations make sense, as do her choices. And it’s all conveyed with zest and to perfection by Vikander. Every moment she’s on the screen, she demands the attention of the viewer; I didn’t even want to blink for fear of missing a subtlety from Vikander, as she punctuates her entire performance with looks, mannerisms, and a magnetism that I haven’t seen in a hopeful blockbuster in quite some time. I hope this film does well enough to kick-start the franchise because I want to see Vikander continue to develop the character and vicariously experience the fun she’s having while doing so.
I’m not going to claim that the film is perfect. There are some clichés to be found within the narrative. And it’s not entirely unpredictable. Nor is it as culturally relevant or “important”, so to speak, as a film such as Black Panther. But none of that affected my enjoyment in the slightest. The sense of adventure, the thrilling action set pieces, and the pure enjoyment radiated by Vikander are more than enough to make up for any of the film’s minor shortcomings. Tonight’s screening was free for me, but when the film hits on the weekend of March 16, I plan on heading out and supporting with a paid viewing. Not only do I want to help the film succeed in a very crowded marketplace, but I just flat-out want to see it, again, because it was that much fun. This is the Tomb Raider I wanted to see in 2001 and it’s the Tomb Raider I want to see much, much more of in the future.
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