By Preston Wilder
‘I thought that would be better,’ sighed a disappointed friend after Tomb Raider – a remark which, with all due respect to my friend, makes no sense at all. Who, at this late stage of the game, goes into something like Tomb Raider expecting it to be any good? Personally I expected the film to be terrible (it is, after all, a reboot of a dire two-film franchise, not to mention based on a video game), and was pleasantly semi-surprised. The first hour is actually almost recommendable, if you like unpretentious action movies with practical (i.e. non-CGI) action – at least till we get to the inevitable endless climax, which is indeed pretty endless. At least it’s better than The Mummy, in the annals of ‘films where destruction is threatened by the mummified remains of some ancient sovereign’.
The ancient sovereign is called Himiko, a Japanese sorceress-queen entombed on “the lost island of Yamatai” – but the real queen of this show is Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, the role vacated by Angelina Jolie a full 15 years ago. Vikander is a Swede (the director is another Scandinavian, Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who previously made a well-staged disaster movie called The Wave) as well as an Oscar winner, for The Danish Girl; she’s wide-eyed, straight-nosed, high-cheekboned, with an earnest, almost serene expression. She looks like she could be a yoga teacher, which you couldn’t have said about Jolie (she looked scarier, like a primal-scream-therapy teacher) – but in fact the chaste persona is appropriate since Tomb Raider is something of an origin story, showing how humble billionaire’s daughter Lara follows in the footsteps of Lord Richard Croft, her missing-presumed-dead father.
This is all good fun, with our heroine pursuing cryptic clues to an underground lair which reveals that her dad was Batman (or at least Indiana Jones, a daring ‘tomb raider’) as well as Bruce Wayne. Lara is thrilled to discover his secret identity – though at this stage she’s working as a bike messenger and barely making ends meet, being unable to access the family fortune till she agrees to declare her father dead. This seems a bit unconvincing (surely he’d be declared legally dead, and the money would pass to her automatically? and surely she’d get an allowance in the meantime?), but no matter. One may also wonder why Lara and her friend say “You got whooped” and “frickin’ superhero” in their posh London accents – but again, no matter. The point is that Lara is just another girl, albeit one who loves boxing and sometimes startles her mates by quoting Shakespeare.
The Shakespeare quote is to show how incredibly smart she is (“Where did you end up going, Oxford or Cambridge?” asks someone later); it’s that kind of movie. Still, kudos are due for not making Lara invincible, in the boring way of so many action films with ‘empowered’ heroines (we may finally be entering that post-feminist world where girls can shoot guns without frantic over-compensating). She comes off second-best in the boxing ring; she runs from a trio of knife-wielding punks – this is in Hong Kong, on her way to the tomb of Himiko – without trying to fight them; she’s not even that smart, getting out-haggled by a pudgy pawnshop owner. Vikander’s Lara, unlike Jolie’s tempestuous Amazon, is a modest, vulnerable heroine.
Tomb Raider is modest too, but patchily enjoyable. There are two scenes with Lara being chased (not romantically) by groups of boys, a sly comment on her secret allure in a man’s world. There’s a thrilling escape from a sinking ship, the vessel dashed against the rocks and the sea illuminated by flashes of lightning. There’s an impressive sequence involving a bridge across a chasm, whitewater rapids, and a rusted plane-wreck on the lip of a waterfall. There’s disappointingly little plot once our heroine finds the ‘lost island of Yamatai’ – she also finds Walton Goggins as a mildly demented baddie obsessed with having no-one to talk to, though he’s not exactly Robinson Crusoe – but, again, no matter.
It may sound like I’m setting the bar pretty low for Tomb Raider, and I guess I am; $100 million should get you more, I realise – but mildly diverting action without too many niggly annoyances is fine, the way things are nowadays. The Raiders of the Lost Ark-ish climax is a niggly annoyance, alas, overdoing the booby-trapped obstacle course and misjudging its effects (Lara gets a kind of ‘Eureka moment’ about Ms. Himiko which is played as much more of a twist than it actually is). In a nutshell, the film is overlong, underplotted, irrelevant to gamers but enjoyable for 12-year-old boys – speaking of which, whatever happened to the sexual smoulder which Jolie, for all her manic turbulence, brought to the character? “I’m sorry. I’m just not that kind of Croft.”
DIRECTED BY Roar Uthaug
STARRING Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins
US/UK 2018 118 mins