Does anyone really want to see Lara Croft’s origin story? Specifically, do we really care about the life of one of the all-time most famous video game characters, before she was super-cool? Think about this for a moment. If you imagine Croft as intelligent, attractive and fierce, wearing shorts and a tank top while scaling mountains and recovering artifacts, then you’re thinking of her in her prime. The new “Tomb Raider” is about Croft as unsteady and out-of-her-element, fragile and needing to prove herself on her first outing. It’s kind of like watching a movie about Indiana Jones during his years as a substitute teacher and working as a guide on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. You know, the exciting back story.
Recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander takes over the role of Croft from Angelina Jolie, portraying the young adventurer as a trouble making only child whose life is defined by the loss of her father (played by Dominic West). A chance to inherit the family fortune leads Croft on an expedition to a mysterious island, where no one can leave and gun toting villains are everywhere.
Vikander is best known for “Ex Machina” and her Academy Award winning turn in “The Danish Girl.” She’s a gifted actress and the best thing about this movie. While Croft is as realistic a character as Jason Bourne, Vikander succeeds at always making Croft sympathetic and likable. However, considering her prior achievements, this is a step down. While not comparable to Halle Berry doing “Catwoman” after winning the Oscar, Vikander deserves far better than the overly familiar screenplay provides her.
The supporting cast is strong but no one steps up and takes control of the movie. Character actor Walton Goggins has a great face and excels in supporting turns but is completely flat here playing the main villain. Derek Jacobi and Kristin Scott Thomas are wasted in barely-there side roles and Nick Frost’s two scenes appear to be last-minute reshoots intended to inject some needed humor. It doesn’t work.
As much as I like Vikander in this movie, I missed Jolie. Although the 2001 “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” is clunky and silly, it has some terrific action set pieces and benefitted enormously from the sheer joy Jolie brought to it. I loved how Jolie’s Croft was unbreakable, brilliant and feisty; Vikander’s Croft, on the other hand, is vulnerable, insecure and easily injured. It’s hard to stump for the prior “Tomb Raider” films as anything more than guilty pleasures (despite seeing it opening day, I remember next to nothing about the 2003 “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life”). Yet, Jolie owned that role the same way Sean Connery simply is James Bond. Vikander isn’t the George Lazenby of this franchise but she’s not Pierce Brosnan, either.
There’s a sensational set piece at the mid-point, involving a waterfall and an airplane, that stands as the film’s highlight. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug demonstrates here, as he did in his memorable 2015 hit “The Wave,” that’s he’s good at integrating CGI effects with live action. However, as a screenplay, this Croft adventure is as rickety as the prior installments. In addition to the talented-loser-in-need-of-redemption angle (overdone since the 2009 “Star Trek”), there’s the extended ending that steals openly from far better movies. Watching Croft walk down a dark hallway with traps set everywhere, I couldn’t help but whisper “Only the Penitent Man Will Pass.” There are also bits from other Indiana Jones movies, “National Treasure” and “The Goonies” that are shamelessly recycled.
While the story quality is always lacking in these movies, the first “Tomb Raider” was confident, had a lavish budget, a catchy U2 song (the still-awesome “Elevation”) and felt like a big deal. This one is fun at times but seems forced and unsteady. If this new take on Croft continues, I hope they reconfigure everything but keep Vikander, the one element that really works.