Tomb Raider with Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft is a fascinating reflection of a twenty year old franchise, being rocked back and forth between fame, brilliance, failure, controversy and reinvention. Everyone who has been part of that long running journey, no matter if you’re a fan or creator, might find something in this film that connects with their involvement.
(this review will contain spoilers)
The 2018 movie feels like a fan-film in some instances. It’s modern, down to earth and earnest. Not because the production values are poor, but there’s a certain moderation and simplicity in the overall story and characterization. There’s little to no grandiose fighting scenes, explosions or CGI-heavy scenes of the supernatural kind. And it’s hard to say if that’s fitting for Tomb Raider or not. And it’s even harder to get a straight answer to that question if you would go out and ask a random selection of Tomb Raider fans.
Tomb Raider is a franchise big enough and long running enough to speak to multiple audiences and reach to about two or three different generations by now. Since the early 2000s the game series has found itself in a split trying to please both the nostalgia searchers, young romantics, old cynics and eager late-millennial kids. Browse a bit through the comment section of the average post of Tomb Raider’s official Facebook page and you witness a clash of people wishing for one thing or another, people being confused with which offshoot or rejuvenation of the franchise we’re actually talking about and mere passers-by with some cringe-worthy wittiness regarding Lara Croft’s breast size.
Tomb Raider was once a larger-than-life story of a rich British aristocrat with a mansion and an arsenal of weapons going out to discover hidden artifacts. The gun toting, wise-cracking and just a little caricature-looking lady Lara Croft was a subject of debate in society since her first appearance. Feminist icon or sex symbol? An inspiring role model or cheap, offensive piece of wankfodder? The most interesting point of those discussions is always: what did her creators intend her to be, and how did the audience perceive her? And is there a difference between the two? And does that matter? This discussion never stopped as the franchise went through several reboots, tonal shifts and reinterpretations. Lara’s newer versions became more grounded in reality, more of a three-dimensional character and less of a lighthearted comic book hero. Or, as some will argue: weaker, whinier, less strong and independent.
MMA and London hipsters
The first part of the Alicia Vikander movie makes no secret of wanting to depart from the Lara of old and tell a story firmly set into the modern age. A financially struggling Lara, practicing MMA with other chipper twenty-somethings and working as bike courier in a multicultural London neighborhood; wearing hoodies and leather jackets, riding fixed gear bikes and casually quoting Shakespeare. And yet it can’t entirely say goodbye to the old game tropes, even if they aren’t that old. Because Lara’s missing father is a recurring element introduced in the first movie-adaption back in 2001 (that’s seventeen years ago) but absent from the game’s narrative since 1996 and only appearing in-game with the 2006 title “Tomb Raider Legend”. If we have seen Lara living in a hipster-ish loft somewhere in gentrified inner city London, do we then also have to see her in daddy’s luxury country side manor? Does it make sense at this point to combine both interpretations of her? Or are we just making it complicated now for newcomers?
Starting fresh and innovative, the movie slowly turns to game franchise elements to build the plot. Is that a bad thing? It’s fun to spot the similarities with the 2013 game “Tomb Raider”, which the movie is heavily inspired on, but at the same time odd to see it departing from the game’s formula in the most unexpected ways. Whereas movies usually add dialogue and supporting characters when adapting a game, this one actually has less. Interesting in-game allies like Sam Nishimura, Jonah Maiava and Joslin Reyes are missing on the silver screen, and the plot, especially the more mythical background story, is more simplified. Promising characters of Lara’s own age that are introduced in the beginning of the film are tossed aside for an uninteresting villain, yet another version of her father and a handful of nameless badguys. The only really good supporting character is ally Lu Ren, who will hopefully return in a possible sequel.
Stronger than in-game Lara though, is the witty sense of humour and sharp edges to Vikander’s character. Whereas the videogame character voiced by Camilla Luddington could come across as a bit dramatic and humorless, the movie Lara finds a better balance between sympathetic and edgy. The scenes with the pawnbroker, first meeting Lu Ren and goofing around with her friends at the bike delivery company are excellent character building moments and fine bits of acting.
Bits and Pieces
Like the rolling ball of objects in Beautiful Katamari, Tomb Raider and Lara Croft have gathered an endless and tangled legacy through the many years and many interpretations they received. With fans of all ages and personal investments in the character, it becomes hard to make it into a movie that’s both its own independent thing and also respect its history. This year’s movie is a brave but not entirely successful attempt. Alicia Vikander makes a beautiful, funny and relatable Lara who stands firmly in contemporary society. If the movie had dared to retain the tone, humor and approach of it’s opening hour, it would have been so much better. But I understand their reluctance to expose such a delicate, vulnerable thing to three generations of divided fans.