Warning: spoilers ahead for the 2018 Tomb Raider film and the 2013 Tomb Raider video game.
In one particularly brutal scene in the new Tomb Raider film, protagonist Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) wrestles with a mercenary in the jungle. Doing everything she can to avoid capture and the strong threat of sexual violence, Lara breaks his grasp by biting him, then grapples with him in the mud, finally killing him by drowning him in a puddle. It’s a tense scene even for people who aren’t familiar with Crystal Dynamics’ 2013 Tomb Raider video game. But as a fan of that game, I found my hands sweating during the film sequence. I remember struggling through the notoriously difficult section of the game that inspired the scene. It’s the first time in the game that Lara kills someone, and the fight requires precise timing to break free from her attacker and avoid being shot. On my first play-through, I failed half a dozen times, watching Lara fall in various ways based on what I’d gotten wrong.
That brawl is just one of numerous scenes Tomb Raider’s screenwriters cribbed almost directly from the 2013 game. Watching Lara pull herself out of a raging river, then escaping a rusted-out, disintegrating airplane, practically triggers muscle-memory. Just like in the game, Lara washes up onto the storm-wracked shores of Yamatai after a shipwreck, and someone knocks her unconscious as she cries for help. Movie Lara receives a gut wound that bleeds through her sweaty tank top, so her film costume lines up perfectly with the game version. She has to scramble over narrow logs that have conveniently fallen in just the right place to bridge chasms, and she finds a bright red climbing axe to be an invaluable tool. Even Vikander’s gasps and groans mirror the ones Grey’s Anatomy co-star Camilla Luddington voiced for the video game.
The visuals and action sequences are the best part of the movie, capturing the thrills and mystery that made the rebooted Tomb Raider games so appealing. But when screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons focus on the plot, they largely ignore the source material. Both stories are set in the ancient country of Yamatai, the final resting place of the mythical Japanese queen Himiko, and both put Lara into conflict with a madman named Mathias. But that’s where the similarities end. Instead, the film’s writers seem to have found their inspiration by mashing up the plots of the two earlier Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films into a mess that undermines all the characters.
Just as in the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the 2018 film has Lara’s father, Lord Richard Croft, missing and presumed dead, until Lara finds a secret passage in her family’s property, with clues to his whereabouts that spur her to action. Both versions of Lara must confront their father’s enemies and truths he kept from them, and both must learn to say goodbye. That’s fine on the surface, but every aspect of that plot works better in the 2001 film. Mathias (Walton Goggins) in Tomb Raider and his corresponding Lara Croft villain Manfred Powell (Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen) are both leading archaeological expeditions, and need some key piece of information from Richard Croft. But Powell is a campy delight, an antiquities lawyer and Illuminati member who somehow finds a way to lounge in opulence at his dig site. He killed Lara’s father but still tries to seduce her with the chance to use magic to bring him back.
By contrast, Mathias in the new film is a pathetic tool. He feels like a castaway from Lost, stuck on an island for seven years until a voice on the other side of his satellite phone tells him he can leave. Why is that true? We’re told that human traffickers are regularly bringing new laborers to the island, presumably to replace the ones Mathias kills, but there’s no apparent reason he can’t quit and take one of those transports back home to his two daughters. Instead, he complains about how he has no one to talk to, while sitting in the middle of a busy camp. Apparently, he’s only capable of real conversation with white scholars. When he tells Lara she’s pretty, it’s thoroughly creepy, and when he tells her he’s killed her father, he’s lying. The video game Mathias he’s based on is insane because he’s been stranded on the island for 31 years, and has come to worship Himiko. The movie version doesn’t even believe she has any power. Given that he’s such a weak nothing of a villain, his eventual defeat isn’t even particularly satisfying.
And Lara Croft herself has been similarly powered down. 2001 movie Lara has been trained to finish her father’s work should he fail. 2018 movie Lara doesn’t even know her father is an archaeologist at all. He was apparently pursuing evidence of the supernatural on the side while masquerading as a wealthy businessman, a la Bruce Wayne or Oliver Queen. That difference makes Vikander’s Lara feel ignorant and aimless and requires the writers to devote a huge amount of the movie’s runtime to showing why she’s able to survive her hardships on the island. She quotes Hamlet at her bike messenger job, so we know she’s smart. She practiced archery as a child, so we know she’ll be able to fight on Yamatai once she finds a bow. She boxes for fun, so we’re prepared to see her scrap with mercenaries. But her only motivation seems to be proving her father didn’t die, and her only ally in that quest is drunk captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), who’s also looking for his missing father.
That’s a huge contrast from the 2013 game, where it’s Lara’s own research that leads an archaeological expedition to Yamatai. In both the game and the 2018 film, when Lara is reminded of her father’s accomplishments, her response is “I’m not that kind of Croft.” She’s insecure in both versions of the story, but at least in the game, she’s driven by a trusting crew who she cares about and will fight to save when things go wrong. Game Lara uses a camcorder to look back on her time on the ship that took them to Yamatai, letting players get a little exposition while showing a happier time that helps break up the intense gameplay. I would have loved to see movie Lara hanging out with her game-friend Sam, a descendant of Himiko, or arguing with the peacocking celebrity archaeologist Whitman. Instead, the only person Lara revisits with a camcorder in the film is her father. It’s a perfect illustration of how her world in the movie has narrowed.
The other half of Tomb Raider’s plot seems to have been lifted from the second Angelina Jolie franchise installment, the 2003 film Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. While in the game, Himiko is believed to have control over storms, which ties into Yamatai’s perilous seas, the new film turns her into a bringer of plague, which makes the search for her tomb seem like an extremely bad idea. In The Cradle of Life, Lara is racing against a mad bioweapons maker to find Pandora’s box and keep him from opening it and unleashing a pandemic. In the new film, Richard Croft realizes how dangerous Himiko is and keeps looking for her, even though he knows some shady organization is monitoring his progress. Why he didn’t just stop is a mystery, and Lara only hurts the situation by ignoring his wishes that she destroy his notes. Taking the weather control out of the story lets the 2018 Tomb Raider team avoid incorporating magic, which is common in both the video game series and the first two films. But the replacement plot hook, the threat of plague, puts the heroes in the awkward situation where everyone would have been better off if they’d just stayed home.
Tomb Raider follows a long line of great video games turned into mediocre movies. The cinematic subgenre suffers from the fact that what people want to experience with controllers in their hands is distinctly different from what makes good cinema. The Tomb Raider game is more than 12 hours long and has a plot that players piece together though picking up journal entries and eavesdropping on bad guys, with Lara helpfully explaining her progress when she stops back at camp for a breather. And that’s not a mode a movie can duplicate.
Obviously, the filmmakers were going to need to find a new way to tell the story, but they’re missing out on so many strong opportunities suggested by the rebooted Tomb Raider games. The game’s cast of supporting characters could have provided both some desperately needed comic relief and a deeper portrait of who Lara Croft is. Jolie’s Lara Croft is an absurd badass, the stuff of male and female fantasies alike, as she wanders the world kicking ass in short shorts and fancy coats. The 2013 video game reinvented the character as younger and more vulnerable, but still driven to achieve greatness, and willing to take on the most terrifying challenges. She’s compassionate and curious, and she doesn’t hide her emotions when she’s desperately trying to help a lost friend, or brimming with awe as she cracks the lid off a tomb to look at the ancient relics within.
Those emotions are largely absent from the latest film, and toughness and stubbornness alone aren’t enough to make a compelling character. But with the 2018 film heavily hinting at a movie franchise to come, there’s a chance that there will be another chance to really show what makes Tomb Raider villains memorable, what makes Lara Croft approachable, and why the whole franchise is exciting in the first place.