You have to respect when a director clearly loves the material and subject of his movie, and when a performer is perfectly cast and goes the extra mile to give the character extra weight. You just don’t have to like it.
So it goes with Tomb Raider and critic favorite Alicia Vikander, who is finally given the starring role she deserves as Lara Croft, the hero of the blockbuster video game series. The film is a terrific showcase of Vikander’s dramatic range and phenomenal athleticism, but unfortunately not much else. Director Roar Uthaug (yes, really) recreates some of the key game elements—ledge climbing, puzzle solving, jungle navigating—with clear admiration for the source material, but with little sense of how or why a film audience should be engaged if it is not controlling it.
PG-13, 118 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX, Violet Crown Cinema
We meet Lara as a young woman in modern-day London, where she’s scraping by as a bike courier in spite of the fact that she comes from massive wealth. Her father, Richard (Dominic West), disappeared seven years earlier, and her refusal to declare him dead means she cannot claim his inheritance. She soon discovers the truth of his adventuring ways, traveling the world to collect artifacts in an effort to prove the existence of supernatural forces in our world. Her journey leads her to a forgotten island near Japan with the assistance of boat captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), where they must square off against Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins) of a mysterious corporation, who is after the same potentially deadly artifact on the island.
All of the performers give their best to roles that don’t deserve this level of commitment. Vikander proves she’s a star, bringing many terrific characteristics to Lara. She has a glimmer in her eye (that never becomes an ironic wink of the Bruce Willis variety), full of humor and energy, carrying the trauma of losing her father without being defined by it or giving up her independence. Goggins is a terrific villain because he is not nefarious and has no specific evil intent; he’s lost all moral bearing, good or bad, having been trapped on that island for nearly a decade. Those are the two best performances, though it is worth noting how effectively Wu’s Lu Ren is more than a sidekick, and that West does what he can with his role.
A central failing of video game adaptations in general is that gaming is a medium based on interactivity. If a narrative doesn’t totally add up or drags in the middle, it doesn’t matter as much because the player’s chief responsibility is to keep moving, which itself is a form of dramatic engagement. A player controlling her character as she scales a difficult wall, for example, is invested in the outcome. A film with the exact same camera angles and pacing would fail because it removes the precise reason someone should care.
After the very strong start with Lara’s life in London, the film becomes bogged down in sometimes well-executed but going-nowhere jungle action sequences for a long time in what is already a lengthy movie. This is the experience from which Lara emerges as a fully-formed hero, if only it didn’t turn into a strangely specific emulation of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That could have been fun, but Uthaug has a knack for turning to exciting source material and churning out dry imitations bereft of any other reason to exist.
Tomb Raider succeeds in two things: demonstrating that Vikander has the chops to be a superstar in her own right, and making the audience want to play the video game again. Everything else, it comes up short.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
A Wrinkle in Time, Annihilation, Black Panther, Game Night, Love, Simon, Nine to Five, Peter Rabbit, Thoroughbreds, Wasted! The Story of Wasted Food
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
7 Days in Entebbe, A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, Death Wish, The Greatest Showman, Gringo, The Hurricane Heist, I Can Only Imagine, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Love, Simon, Peter Rabbit, Red Sparrow, The Strangers: Prey at Night
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
A Fantastic Woman, A Wrinkle in Time, Annihilation, Black Panther, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, Game Night, Gringo, Love, Simon, Red Sparrow, The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Thoroughbreds