Released in summer 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was an ungainly attempt to level up the art of cinematic Raiders of the Lost Ark knockoffs. It grafted the cutscene mythology of the popular video game onto an adventure that rappelled down the Uncanny Valley of early-2000s special effects. Director Simon West (Con Air) found a glimmer of possibility in the material by casting Angelina Jolie in the lead — not just because she fed the lust of male gamers and gazers, but because she brought in some of the sly unpredictability that won her an Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar for Girl, Interrupted two years earlier. Under better circumstances, Jolie could have offered her version of Harrison Ford’s knowing smirk through exotic locales and spring-loaded traps. But the script held her back, making her fight the stiff headwinds of an Illuminati conspiracy plot, gross objectification, and the comic stylings of actor Noah Taylor.
Fifteen years after Jan de Bont’s sequel, Lara Croft: Cradle of Life, brought Jolie’s exploits to a close, the franchise has been revived as a vehicle for Alicia Vikander, another upstart raising her profile after winning an Actress in a Supporting Role Oscar. The new Tomb Raider is a reboot of a reboot, adapting the 2013 video game by Crystal Dynamics, which was itself searching for a fresh start to a franchise that began in 1996, then foundered over a decade of sequels with diminishing returns. The new alterations to the story aren’t dramatic enough to elevate the series, but they do reflect a post-Gamergate shift in priorities, with an emphasis on Lara’s athleticism instead of her sex appeal, and a plot that sends her into battle on an island of men.
But getting her to the island, let alone allowing her to raid tombs, takes some doing. When Tomb Raider opens, Lara hasn’t even considered becoming a professional adventurer, so the film has to figure out various tortured ways to keep the action beats coming. Seven years after her archeologist father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), disappeared, Lara refuses to concede that he’s dead, which means she can’t access her massive inheritance. So she scrapes together money delivering Indian food by bike in London and sharpens her mixed martial arts skills at a local gymnasium. That gives Norwegian director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) two shake-and-bake action sequences: an MMA sparring match to prove Lara’s mettle, and a bike chase through the streets of London. It’s thin gruel, but for action junkies, it’s sustenance.
The locale shifts to Hong Kong after Lara discovers Lord Croft’s research on Himiko, a sinister Japanese queen who left so much misery and death in her wake that her own generals brought her to the island of Yamatai and imprisoned her in a hidden, booby trapped tomb. Desperate to know what happened to her father, Lara persuades a drunk ship captain (Daniel Wu) to escort her to Yamatai, where she finds an island crowded with treasure-seekers. Chief among them is Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a rival archeologist who’s commissioned poor migrants and gun-toting mercenaries to blast through the rock in search of Himiko’s tomb.
Nothing about Queen Himiko suggests unearthing her would be a great idea: not her ominous “power over death,” not the “chasm of souls,” not her poisonous index finger, not the fact that she was deliberately entombed in a place where no one could ever find her. Tomb Raider is like an anti-treasure hunt, a mad quest to unleash a world-ending plague. As Vogel, Goggins steers into the malevolent curve, looking as comfortable fomenting chaos here as he did raising hell in Kentucky coal country for several seasons on Justified. He lusts for power more than money and plausibly assumes that Himiko’s toxic spirit will be compatible with his own.
Vikander doesn’t do much with a character whose chief attribute is earnestness, but Tomb Raider improves once it gets to the island and lets the derring-do take over. Lara faces a treacherous waterfall, dispatches gun-toting henchmen, solves Myst-like mechanized puzzles, and dodges booby traps. And when the time comes for her to throw down with fists and feet of fury, the film has already established that she’s up for that, too. Though Uthaug leans heavily on digitally enhanced images of Lara leaping across impossible spaces, Vikander’s surprising physicality keeps her from reading like a weightless effect. Her slightness in The Danish Girl and Ex Machina, however deceptive, is nowhere in evidence here.
At the same time, Tomb Raider is too busy solving the problem of how to make a Lara Croft movie work to justify its own existence. Though this 2.0 version pares down the Illuminati hokum of the original film, there’s still the requisite need to square elements of the game with the serialized matinee adventures that inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. The platform and puzzle elements and the secret antechambers and conspiracies all tie back into the game’s myths and rhythms, but they take away from its cinematic flow. The 2018 Tomb Raider does well enough to satisfy a video game and movie franchise simultaneously, but the two aren’t easily reconciled. When Lara is pinned to a stone wall, trying to figure out which colored gem goes into which slot, it can’t help but feel like some offscreen controller is managing her actions. She isn’t a movie character anymore, she’s an avatar.
As a machine-tooled diversion, however, this Tomb Raider improves considerably on the previous films, if only by dialing down the tacky excesses. This Lara doesn’t have the indignity of fighting against training robots or animated stone figures, and she doesn’t make her escape via sledless snow dogs. Uthaug takes a much more conservative approach, bringing the film more in line with the gender-reversed Indiana Jones the series always intended to be. Vikander’s Lara is all business, streamlined and efficient, and the film follows dutifully in kind.