It never rains, but it pours, when it comes to video game adaptations.
Very, very few of these ventures ever turn out to be good. The first Resident Evil has aged very well, with the classic “dogs through the window,” scare still managing to make the audience jump. The Silent Hill movies a few years back were average horror flicks that didn’t particularly stick to the source material, but they had some cool looking monsters. Persona 3 got a whopping three movies out of its PS2 successor, and these are beautifully animated and tell the heart wrenching story to its inevitable conclusion.
Then there’s the ones we do not speak of. Doom. House of the Dead. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within – so cringey, we dare not even whisper their names aloud. All dramatics aside, there has yet to be a solid, 10/10 video game movie, unless you count the Japanese Ace Attorney, which is a thing of absolute beauty. I had high hopes for Tomb Raider, since I loved the first rebooted game and hated the second, but general reviews seemed to be giving it a positive buzz.
Unfortunately, Tomb Raider – The Movie manages to take a fun, heavily character focused game, and take out all of the character and personality with it.
Warning: spoilers for the movie plot are included in the following paragraphs – you’ve been warned!
Before I delve into what I didn’t like, I want to commend the casting of Lara – Alicia Vikander actually makes a pretty good Lara, facially and in terms of acting. Whilst I don’t think she was given much in terms of script to work with, her British accent sounds authentic enough to pass as genuine, and her skills in Ex Machina were to be envied. I’d say, out of everything in this movie, she’s the best part, because when the emotional scenes hit, it didn’t feel overdone or cheesy, which is pretty damn rare for a video game movie.
But despite all this, the one word you need to describe Tomb Raider is “cliché.” It initially gave me false hope, because the opening delivers some nice attention to detail; Lara’s mother being dead, the addition of Ana, mentions of Trinity, Yamatai and its queen, Himiko, and Lara’s necklace (with some bonus backstory, to boot), all seemed like a decent blend of source material. As the film progresses, though, it becomes quickly apparent that this is Tomb Raider Diet, where it could be called “Jenny Smith and Adventures on the Magical Japanese Island,” for all the similarities it shared.
One of the most interesting things about Tomb Raider is that the first game of the reboot (hereafter referred to as TR 2013), is incredibly character driven, and mostly by female characters. I’m not going to go into a huge rant, but well written female protagonists aren’t as common as I’d like them to be. I was hoping this franchise would translate well over to the screen, but it promptly falls completely flat. In game, Lara has agency and drive. She pushes the plot forward, even when the goal is to get herself to safety; no one else is coming to do it for her, so all she’s got to work with is her own hands and feet, and whatever the treacherous terrain of Yamatai has to offer her.
The movie strips Lara of everything that makes her Lara Croft apart from the name itself. None of the supporting cast from the game make it in at all, and are replaced by a very weakly inspired version of Matthias, nameless mooks who work for him who aren’t even Russian, the slaves he’s captured, and a random Chinese man named Lu Ren, who takes even more responsibility away from Lara. The whole point of having a crew with Lara was to have a tight knit team of friends who are frantically trying to survive and rescue each other, and without that, we lose a lot of Lara’s motivation. The odd thing is, they could have been easily added in, because Lu Ren adds nothing of significance to the plot apart from a boat, and I’m sure he’s not the only one with one of those.
The other issue I had with the movie is that, although it very loosely follows the plot of the game (there is a lost island governed by a tyrannical queen, and Lara needs to go there for a personal goal, but it all goes to shit when they land because bad guys want to exploit it), is that because the character ties have been so altered and watered down, it turns Lara into a passive protagonist, and tends to lead to everyone else doing things for her. For example, the mission to Yamatai is originally funded by Sam’s family and Whitman, but it was Lara herself that figured out where to actually find the island, where dozens more had failed – it was her and Sam’s pet project. Since the movie has no Sam, Whitman, any funding, or Lara having any ability to think for herself, they transfer all of these external events to the one character they did keep – Lara’s father.
So, the trip to Yamatai? Funded by Lara selling the necklace her father gave her. The research finding out where Yamatai is? All done by Daddy dearest. Lara finding a weapon on the island? Dad has one stashed in the cave he’s living in. And that stomach wound Lara has? I’ll give you three guesses who fixes it and how often it actually hinders Lara’s acrobatics. In comparison, the game has Lara loot the bow off a dead guy, draw on the training Roth and her school gave her, and there’s an entire mission revolving around Lara cleaning and stitching up that wound herself. As a result, you have a weirdly conflicting dynamic – Lara turns into a helpless child one moment, and a deus ex machina Mary Sue the next, because she’s magically badass only when the plot demands.
Although we’re shown vague reasons for Lara’s competency in flashbacks (she learns to shoot at home, though this isn’t ever shown in the present day, she was a curious, inquisitive kid), these moments seem to come out of nowhere, and seem fairly implausible for her to be doing safely. In Tomb Raider 2013, Lara gets scratched up a lot and becomes decidedly ugly for her troubles, because nothing says sexy quite like a blood-smeared outfit and the dire need for a tetanus shot. Movie Lara is magically adept at everything despite not being aware enough to avoid getting hit by a car in the opening scene, and never indicated having the skills of Nathan Drake combined with an acrobat. The catchphrase for the movie could really be “Oh, isn’t that convenient,” for the sheer amount of perfect luck that gets tossed her way. There’s an everlasting parade of deus ex machina to haul Lara’s ass out of danger, whether that’s a perfectly timed stranger to save her life or just the obstacle she needs to haul herself out of a rampaging river. There’s no initiative or drive to save herself, because someone else keeps doing it for her.
This, I feel, is the movie’s biggest failure. On a purely technical standpoint, make no mistake, this is a passable, albeit generic action flick that will fade into obscurity this time next month. There’s nothing blatantly offensive or ridiculous about it, apart from the final scene, where Lara buys her iconic pistols from a pawn shop in the middle of Central fucking London. It just smooths off the edges until everything is a shiny, clean action movie that doesn’t really try to shake off the shackles of the genre. The movie does show Lara’s first kill, for example, but opts instead to make it a weirdly shot, and very hard to see, accidental drowning, which is swiftly moved on from, as opposed to the deliberate, in self defense, horrific scene TR 2013 shows, because that’s not what people have come here to see. People have come to the cinema to see Lara Croft kicking ass and taking names, not to sit soberly and realise that a 21 year old woman has just murdered someone, and is rightly traumatised by it.
As a result, I think the movie has done some damage, and mostly to Lara herself. It’s another female heroine we’ve lost, now leaving her confined to console and not into a further platform for more people to recognise. This wasn’t an impossible task – look at how Lightning Farron is now modelling Louis Vuitton. They didn’t need to take away her sword, her awkwardness, and her gruff personality, they just moved an existing character into the spotlight. For this movie, Lara’s no longer the determined, fiercely intelligent young women that pushes herself beyond breaking point, all thanks to herself. Instead, she’s happy to let the plot happen around her, following the breadcrumbs her father left, and letting either the supporting characters or deus ex machina do stuff for her. There’s no taking ownership of stopping Himiko, no dragging Sam to safety while Himiko tries to claim her body as a vessel – instead, it’s shoving the cursed object down Matthias’ throat, in an admittedly cool death, and running for the hills while her dad saves the day by blowing up the temple.
It’s so incredibly frustrating, because it’s erasing a lot of the things we need in video games, movies, and other sorts of media – nuanced, morally grey, female characters. Though admittedly none of the characters in this movie are particularly fleshed out, it whittles down the two female characters (Lara and Himiko) into the ultimate Mary Sue, and the benevolent queen, respectively. If you recall, TR 2013 Himiko was a complete lunatic who murdered her handmaiden every few decades, stole her body. and generally terrorized her subjects. That’s a cool villain! That’s a great person to have gunning for your protagonists, but nope, Himiko stopped the plague in a valiant sacrifice to keep her people safe. By proxy, it also removes Hoshi, the badass handmaiden who commits suicide in a sacrifice to end Himiko’s reign. As for Ana, she does seem to have a more complex role (drawing from her part in Rise of the Tomb Raider), with her links to Trinity, but this is reduced to about ten minutes of screentime, rushed in at the end, which took a lot more thought than it needed to, to try and figure out its garbled message.
This may not sound like a big deal, because god only knows there’s enough shitty video game adaptations out there, but here’s the thing. We need more characters like Lara for girls to look up to, and not because she’s a “strong female character,” that punches shit, is snarky, and generally horrible to everyone because that’s “being tough.” We need nuanced, smart ladies who act like realistic human beings, who grow and change, and are capable of having relationships with other girls that aren’t petty rivalries – we need the Aloys, the Lightning Farrons, and the Chloe Frazers. What we’ve got more than enough of is falsely competent characters who are magically good at everything but never lead the plot, never make a mistake, and get forced into stupid love triangles (which is one thing I’m incredibly thankful the film didn’t do).
In short? This isn’t an absolutely terrible movie, by any means. It’s nice enough to look at, if you discount the dodgy CGI in some places, and the script is passable. I wouldn’t call the acting anything to write home about, but there’s no one I can point to and call dreadful, and having Nick Frost cameo was a lovely surprise. On the other hand, it’s Tomb Raider gone through the wash with a ton of bleach, and the whole thing is faded and sanitised as a result. If you’re bored and want an average at best action flick, I’d say go and watch it, but for someone who liked the original, 18+ game rendition, remember this version is rated 12A in the UK. And I think that should have said it all in the first place.