In adapting Square Enix’s revisionist take on the iconic video game character Lara Croft, director Roar Uthaug finds himself in a strange position. He carries an obvious love for the material, painstakingly recapturing the harrowing jungle adventure that rips the flesh off of Croft’s bones with each death defying fall. However, he can only take that love so far. A mandated PG-13 rating forces him to throw a bit of Hollywood gloss into the proceedings, despite the aggressive efforts of Alicia Vikander to create a heroine as far removed from Angelina Jolie’s backflipping pistol poser as possible.
Alicia Vikander gives us a reason to believe that the curse of the video game movie will one day be fully broken. She crafts what is by far the most committed turn an actor has ever given a console character. From jump street, her Croft is both spunky and kindhearted. We immediately sympathize with her quest to find her long lost father (Dominic West) and fall in love with her spirit of adventure. She completely throws herself into to the physically demanding aspects of the role, launching into the action scenes without a hint of vanity. Lara gets dragged through the dirt, stabbed and thrown every which way and Vikander takes all of the punishment with a forceful drive that lets us know that she’ll be ready for whatever comes next.
It’s a shame that the supporting cast is not nearly up to Vikander’s level. While Walton Goggins is always a fun scenery chewer, the baddie he’s given to play isn’t given much depth beyond a very superficial “I have a family back home,” log-line. He feels more like a generic obstacle to drive the plot forward than a legitimate foe for Lara. Daniel Wu is completely wasted as a drunken ship captain who reluctantly finds himself strung along on the adventure. For a while, it seems like the story is going to center on the dynamic between him and Lara, but it then proceeds to forget about him in order to give Vikander center stage.
Uthaug does do a good job of capturing the sights and sounds of the game. His action sequences are appropriately bone-crunching, never forgetting how small and breakable his heroine really is. This comes out most prominently when she’s forced to take goons out head-on. There’s a terrific extended take where she’s forced to sneak around the villain’s compound with her bow, with visceral sound design letting us know that any one of these goons could take her out at any moment. When guns do start blazing, Croft takes control while still being appropriately vulnerable. Each fight is a David and Goliath affair for her, which makes the results all the more satisfying.
Unfortunately, this feeling of jeopardy does not quite translate to the more over the top aerodynamic sequences, where Lara is forced to traverse raging rapids and sinking ships. This is where the green screen and wire-work trickery start to seep in. All of a sudden, Lara can stretch her arms exactly where they need to go, and jump exactly as far as she needs to in order to make a clean escape. Uthaug does start to turn these moments around in the third act, where the focus effectively shifts from acrobatics to puzzle solving.
Tomb Raider is perhaps the closest Hollywood has come to both capturing the essence of a video game while still making an entertaining film. This is mostly due to Vikander’s unwavering star quality, taking this character as far as the film will allow her to go. Her performance carries the rest of the film on its back and demands another attempt to make a more complete film to complement her. It’s simply a shame that Uthaug was not allowed to push the violence and emotional beats as far as they were pushed in the game. If he had been allowed to create a story that truly allowed Vikander’s Croft to be incinerated into a diamond, we could’ve had the first truly spectacular translation from controller to cinema. For now, we’ll just have to settle for the first pretty good one.