Tomb Raider, the 2013 video game, was lauded for revitalizing one of gaming’s biggest names and most venerable franchises, and it did it in part by leaning into the narrative side of the medium, with greater depth and characterization for its lead and a clear and compelling story it wanted to tell with her.
Tomb Raider, the 2018 movie — an adaptation of that very game — has the opposite effect, favoring the reproduction of gameplay over story, fumbling its exposition, and dropping one of the Tomb Raider franchise’s core narrative hooks. And, unfortunately, it doesn’t muster up the energy to be fun enough to make up for its flaws.
The movie stumbles right out of the gate, with an awkward exposition dump, but recovers momentarily as we’re introduced to our heroine in her natural urban habitat. Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) as a penniless but quick-witted bike courier is endearing and entertaining, and here, on the streets of London, the movie gives us its best action sequence and does its best building of Lara’s character.
Lara is broke because she has refused for seven years to sign papers declaring her missing father (Dominic West) legally dead, and so she has yet to inherit the Croft fortune. The discovery of a puzzle box he left her sends her on a brief point-and-click adventure game, which leads to a mystery, which leads to a globe-trotting adventure to find the near-mythical island he was researching just before his disappearance.
This is also the place where Tomb Raider starts a slide into mediocrity. It relies heavily on several exposition dumps narrated by the missing Lord Richard Croft to start the engine of its story. Some of his lines are even delivered twice, and they don’t work either time. We’re introduced to several of modern Tomb Raider’s core concepts this way — Queen Himiko, the island of Yamatai, even the megalomaniacal secret global organization of Trinity — major world-building elements that were constructed over two games, condensed and recounted here in blunt narration over a montage of maps and ciphers. It does none of it any favors.
But then, many moments in Tomb Raider feel like events are slightly fast-forwarded. We are often told when we should be shown, or shown a scene that feels like it’s skipped a vital moment in a character’s emotional transition, in favor of getting to the next action sequence or necessary piece of exposition.
Urban London Lara, despite being bad at boxing, is clever and daring, with skills to back up her confidence. But half an hour later, Island Lara is just scared, reactive instead of proactive, as if the movie suddenly remembered what 2013’s Tomb Raider was about. And then it forgets again, the second that it needs Lara to be an unflappable badass in order for the plot to move forward, a level-up moment that is emotionally unearned.
This results in a muddled character arc for Lara, a far cry from the story the movie is supposedly adapting. The best you could say is that the film is about her learning to accept her father’s death. If it was trying to translate Tomb Raider 2013’s story of a young woman learning the depths of her strengths in a ludicrously over-the-top survival situation, all I can say is that that’s poorly communicated.
One of the thrills of games like Tomb Raider 2013 is being able to actively participate in the sorts of cinematic action sequences that moviegoers can merely observe on the big screen. Translating those video game moments back into cinema only serves to make them ... unoriginal action movie sequences. Tomb Raider makes this mistake often, most clearly by committing the river-to-waterfall-to-parachute sequence of Tomb Raider 2013 directly to film.
The filmmakers seem to have decided that the best way to adapt the Tomb Raider franchise to screen is convert its gameplay to a noninteractive medium, rather than its story and characters, as if constructing the world’s most expensive Let’s Play video. The movie’s third act consists of watching Vikander solve a series of puzzles and the occasional quick-time event, in a sequence that feels more like a reskin of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade than a Tomb Raider game.
That’s ironic, because the more cinematic qualities (a word I use in a broader literary sense, rather than its specific video game meaning) of Tomb Raider 2013 that would have been easiest to translate into a movie are also some of its most compelling. I’m talking about Lara’s relationships with her friends Sam and Jonah, and with her mentor and sort-of-surrogate-father Roth, as well as her academic mastery of archaeology and mythology. All of these worked to underpin already engaging gameplay with an enjoyable narrative weight and emotional stakes. None of that is in the movie.
And speaking of changes from the game, Lara believes Trinity and the existence of Queen Himiko’s supernatural power to be a delusion of her father’s, even though to the audience they’re the exact sorts of things that would be real in an obviously pulp adventure-inspired story. Her disbelief isn’t underlined often enough to dispel the weight of the genre, and I found myself wondering how the movie expected to pull off its twist without properly setting up for it. As much as it is a story about survival, Tomb Raider 2013 is also about Lara, a skeptic and student of history, discovering that there are many more things in heaven and earth than she had dared to dream of in her philosophy.
The reason for that turns out to be that Tomb Raider doesn’t have a twist at all. Forgive the spoiler, but it’s such a fundamental crime against the fundamentals of Tomb Raider that I have to mention it: There is no explicit supernatural anything in Tomb Raider. Lara metaphorically pulls the rubber mask off of Queen Himiko, only to pronounce that it was science the whole time.
After years of attempts, no one expects a video game movie to be high cinema. But if Tomb Raider wasn’t going to be great, I had at least held out hope that it would be entertaining. The allowance I was determined to give it was, unfortunately, not quite returned, and I left the theater wondering how soon I could rewatch Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.