The Angelina Jolie series about intrepid video-game heroine Lara Croft barely managed to survive for two installments, and given the quality of this Alicia Vikander reboot, it might not even match that number. It isn’t that “Tomb Raider” is terrible—though relatively diminutive in stature, Vikander throws herself enthusiastically into the role’s physical challenges, and in terms of mere craftsmanship Roar Uthaug’s direction is efficient enough, even if visually things are often rather murky. The picture is also true to the video-game mentality, setting up obstacle after obstacle for Lara to overcome, especially in the final reel.
But the movie is hobbled by a fatal lack of humor. Given the sheer absurdity of the plot cobbled together by scripters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (loosely based on the 2013 game reboot and the comics that flowed from it), it needs a dose of comedy, even self-mockery, of the sort that made “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fun. By contrast this “Raider” is for the most part extremely serious and dour, draining it of the sense of exhilaration this sort of nonsense so desperately needs. By the end one comes out of it feeling as exhausted as the few surviving characters.
There are, to be honest, a few glimmers of humor in the initial stage, when we meet Lara as an impecunious bike delivery-girl in London who finds time for mixed-martial-arts bouts she doesn’t always win. To get a bit of cash, she volunteers to mount her bike and act as a fake “fox” for an urban cycle hunt, spilling a paint trail for pursuers to follow. There are a couple of amusing moments in the chase that follows, as well as some excitement as the riders speed around traffic, but it all ends with a dose of sentiment when Lara crashes after seeing a pedestrian she mistakes for somebody.
That leads to the revelation that Lara actually has a huge inheritance waiting for her from daddy Richard (Dominic West), who left seven years earlier on some mysterious mission but disappeared. Though he’s presumed dead by virtually everyone, however, Lara has refused to sign on to a death declaration that would turn everything over to her, despite the promptings of her guardian (Kristin Scott Thomas) who, along with the company lawyer (Derek Jacobi), warns that she could lose everything if she doesn’t put pen to the legal papers posthaste.
So Lara finally agrees to do so, but in the process learns that Richard has left her some clues that reveal what his destination was seven years ago—the forbidding island of Yamati off the Japanese coast, where supposedly a sorceress queen named Himiko was entombed by her courtiers to prevent her from destroying the world. Richard was going there to prevent looters from finding her resting place and condemning humanity by opening it up.
Of course Lara must now follow in his footsteps. Pawning an amulet with a tart-tongued guy (Nick Frost)—another welcome snatch of humor—she’s off to Hong Kong, where—after a predictable battle-and-chase with some purse-stealing goons—she links up with drunken Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, okay as the obligatory cast member designed to lure in Asian audiences), the son of her father’s guide, who disappeared along with Richard.
It’s with their arrival at Yamati that the video-game portion of “Tomb Raider” really kicks in; the bike race and Hong Kong fracas were merely tune-ups for the still-training hero to prove her mettle. Yamati turns out to be ruled by mercenary Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, laying aside his usual bug-eyed goon routine for a more quietly sinister mode), who with his burly gunmen presides over a small army of slave workers looking for Himiko’s tomb on behalf of some mysterious entity called Trinity. Multiple fights, chases, hair’s-breadth escapes and near-death experiences follow for Lara, but it’s all worth it because she discovers Richard still alive, a bearded recluse who’s been systematically thwarting Vogel’s search.
That revelation allows for a teary-eyed reunion between father and daughter, in which Richard (whom West endows with a degree of dignity, despite that scraggly beard) repeatedly refers to Lara by her childhood nickname Sprout (aww!). But by bringing along Richard’s notebook she has unwittingly provided Vogel with the information he needs to uncover the queen’s grave. Naturally Lara and Richard must try to prevent the opening of the tomb, leading inevitably to a protracted finale in which it’s found and heroes and villains alike must confront and overcome all the dangerous traps that have been placed in the underground structure to prevent outsiders from entering unscathed. Eventually Himiko’s remains are located and her true secret revealed—one that’s decidedly more mundane than the legend would suggest, but no less baleful.
It’s this final section of the movie that will probably appeal most to the game’s fans, since it attempts to replicate the gaming experience, although the dull exposition sequences inevitably break the frenzied mood. The whole business generates some excitement of a 1930s cliffhanger sort—doors that snap shut, life-or-death puzzles that have to be quickly solved, floors that collapse, chasms that have to be crossed by rope or hastily-assembled bridge and the like—but the effect is lessened by the combination of darkness and jerkiness in George Richmond’s cinematography (apparently meant to obscure the fact that much of the CGI-live action mix isn’t of the best) and muddled editing (by Stuart Baird, Michael Tronick and Tom Harrison-Reed), all topped off by Tom Holkenborg’s blaring score and very loud sound effects. By this time all the humor has leaked out of the action, replaced by a combination of sentiment and self-sacrifice that’s positively deadening.
But if “Tomb Raider” ultimately succumbs to its failure to treat nonsense as nonsense and its attempt to persuade us that what we’re seeing should be taken at least semi-seriously, it at least proves that Uthaug, who until now has worked with meager budgets, can handle bigger ones without losing his head (an increasing rarity among younger directors), while showing that Vikander, even in such a hollow piece of derring-do, can add a touch of characterization to the mix; her Lara actually grows over the course of the picture from a spunky young girl often overcome by what she takes on to somebody who can handle herself pretty well.
The picture’s close points to further work for her after she signs her father’s death notice and takes over the family fortune and mission, particularly with regard to the mysterious Trinity organization. But it might also prompt you to wonder about what Vogel’s two daughters, whose picture is prominently displayed on his desk (and whom he’s anxious to get back to), might do in the aftermath of his encounter with the Crofts. After all, they’ve been pining over him for seven years, too.