Lara Croft is the heiress to the Croft empire, a company founded by her father, who disappeared seven years ago. (We’re never told what kind of business Croft actually does, however). She lives her life on her terms, having zero interest in taking over the reigns of the Croft business, instead choosing to spend her time kick boxing and working grueling jobs she earned on her own. This is how we are introduced to Lara, and she’s easily and immediately the best part of this new Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft is a fiercely independent protagonist who’s actions completely drive the story. When she reaches rock bottom, she decides it’s finally time to become involved in her father’s legacy. This leads her to discovering clues that could lead her to her father’s supposed final location before his disappearance, so she sets out on a dangerous journey to find him. Lara is not merely a witness to the events unfolding around her. It is because of her decisions throughout the film that anything begins to move forward, and it’s wonderful to see an active protagonist in an action movie like this, as opposed to someone who just has the misfortune of having bad things happen to them; a passive protagonist. This is Alicia Vikander’s movie; she owns this role and dominates the screen. She trained hard in preparation for this movie and she apparently does all of her own stunts in it. It pays off, because the action is one of the strongest aspects of this movie. It’s refreshing to see an action film that’s pretty much all practical stunts and effects throughout. There’s no part of this film where what you are seeing looks unconvincing or fake. There are shots that are digitally enhanced, definitely, but it’s never obvious / distracting. Each instance of hand to hand combat is filled with tension and carries real stakes, thanks to steady camera work and gritty fight choreography.
About a quarter of this movie feels like it’s just Lara Croft running, and we get these sweeping shots overheard of her that then pan to the front of her, and it really does a great job of showing off her speed and athleticism. But this isn’t a typical action hero. Lara is shown to be extremely vulnerable and emotional, and this is what makes her feel relatable and real. She doesn’t always win every fight, while she’s fighting she’s visibly scared, she screams, she runs out of breath, when she gets injured those injuries have weight and they don’t go away, they last throughout the movie and she struggles through them. She’s not someone who just plows through enemies without breaking a sweat or without a second thought. There’s a scene where she’s forced to kill someone for the first time after a long struggle and it’s not triumphant at all, she’s very shaken and distraught over it. Vikander sells every moment that she’s in; she is powerful and confident yet vulnerable.
Unfortunately, one strong hero, even with a terrific performance, does not instantly make a great movie. The rest is pretty generic. There’s no other character that really stands out, Lara’s friend Lu Ren (played charismatically enough by Daniel Wu), offers some nice levity but is completely sidelined for what feels like half of the film. Walton Goggins is a brilliant actor but his character, rival archeologist Mathias Vogel, is as bland of a villain as you can get. Vogel wants to get an ancient, evil tomb open to make himself and his employers rich, and is willing to kill anyone who stands in his way. We’re told he has his own daughters he wants to get home to, an obvious parallel to Lara’s father, but that’s it, we’re told that once and we never come back to it. There’s no scene of Vogel explaining how much his daughters mean to him, how it’s torture that he’s been trapped on this expedition for so long (remember, it’s been seven years), or anything. The character is more of an obstacle than an actual person.
The narrative is very simple and straight-forward, that is until the very end, where they attempt to set up a sequel, if not a series of sequels. This is not only a bit overly ambitious for this would-be franchise, but it also holds the movie back from completely focusing on the standalone story it’s trying to tell and giving us a satisfying conclusion to that story. The ending chooses to solely prep us for the next adventure, instead of taking the time to reflect and think on the dangerous trek that Lara just took and how this has changed her.
Does Tomb Raider break the video game movie curse? When all is said and done, it just might. A simplistic plot doesn’t necessarily mean a bad plot, and the father-daughter relationship that drives the entire thing is solid and genuinely touching at times. This is a true redemption of Lara Croft; a rebirth of the iconic character for the modern age that began with the 2013 video game reboot, which this film is an adaptation of. I would love to see this version of Lara in a more interesting story with more interesting supporting characters, but this isn’t exactly a bad starting point. Tomb Raider is a fun, action-packed adventure carried by a strong lead character and performance, but it just misses becoming truly great.