Film Review: Tomb Raider

Videogame heroine Lara Croft is back, but she’s left the fun behind in a lazy updating of an outdated franchise.
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We’re living in the age of the empowered action heroine. Jennifer Lawrence in Red Sparrow, the lead actors in Annihilation, the women of Black Panther—every one a take-no-nonsense character who’s fully ready to be the star of her own story. And now returning to the screen is feisty '90s heroine Lara Croft—the one with the double-D cleavage and tight, tiny shorts—who got her own feminist update in a 2013 videogame reboot that was successful enough to warrant a film adaptation.

Alicia Vikander takes over for Angelina Jolie and the whole thing has been recast as an origin story. It’s got some pretty location work, a few old pros in supporting roles and a quieter, more realistic look for its heroine. But it doesn’t have its own reason for being.

The story begins with Lara, the daughter of a missing English nobleman, refusing to declare him dead and scoop up her inheritance. Instead, she decides to find him by retracing his final steps—a search for an uncharted island, and the lost tomb of a mystical Japanese empress.

Lara Croft always felt a little like a gender-switched Indiana Jones, and the plot settles for various half-remembered ideas from Raiders of the Lost Ark—a mysterious jungle, a booby-trapped temple, ruthless villains out to steal a magical object. It’s fine to borrow them, of course; they were old when Raiders stole them from ’30s serials. But you also need to add something of your own—wit or style or charisma.

And that’s where Tomb Raider comes up empty.

It’s great that it’s purged the character, and the series, of the usual sexist and violent clichés. Lara wears pants now and no longer has the physique of a Barbie doll (even the voluptuous Jolie used padding to play her). There’s no obligatory romantic subplot (even better, no threat of sexual violence). Even the gun worship has been toned down (Lara’s favored weapon is a bow and arrow).

But the film’s been so busy subtracting old things, it’s forgotten to add anything new.

Vikander has brought a calm, serious presence to other films, but she’s simply bland here, running (often literally) from scene to scene without taking our attention with her. Her scenes with her father (Dominic West plays the missing dad) are cloying. Nothing with the chief villain (Walton Goggins at his most twitchy) carries any real danger.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Derek Jacobi show up briefly to add some adult authority, and Daniel Wu has a few good moments as the skipper Lara hires to take her on her voyage. But once the ship gets there, the mystery begins to fade, and the videogame origins—there are an inordinate amount of puzzles to solve and mazes to maneuver—begin to glare.

Also missing in action is, well, the action. The simplest sequences work best. There’s an amusing early chase scene, with Lara bicycling at breakneck speed through London; later, there’s another taut one, when three Chinese muggers try to steal her backpack.

But the supposed set-pieces are disasters. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, who made the tsunami picture The Wave, should certainly understand action. Yet the more complicated the scenes get, the less control he has; a shipwreck is so confusingly edited there’s no sense of space at all, and a hand-to-hand fight is shot so murkily we can’t be quite sure who’s killing who.

There are some things to like here, to be sure—certainly it’s refreshing to have a female action heroine who not only isn’t stabbing men to death with stilettoes, but probably doesn’t even own a pair. (Lara pretty much lives in the same T-shirt, trousers and plain boots.) But all the good intentions won’t make up for a lack of imagination. This is one Tomb that didn’t need to be reopened.

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