As a group, cinematic archaeologists and adventurers of the treasure-hunting variety are not the brightest of people.
Sure, they’re brave, intrepid, a little reckless and with chutzpath to burn, but bright? Not so much.
Time and again, adventurers like Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander in this iteration), who returns in Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider 15 years after Angelina Jolie’s second outing in the role in 2003’s The Cradle of Life, go racing into situations that, with a little more considered thought, would be avoided like the plague.
Which is apt in this instance since the great threat in what is effectively Lara Croft’s origin story, where we meet the young tomb raider-to-be on her first grand adventure to a remote island off Japan called Yamatai, is more plague-like than evil per se.
The real threat, as always, though are people, something Lara, who is living rough off food delivery courier wages because she refuses to accept her father is dead, an admission that would legally release her father Richard’s (Dominic West) considerable inheritance, discovers when she picks up on a clue left by her father in a puzzle trinket and sets off to find out what happened to him.
It’s been said that Lara has “daddy issues” but really she is like any daughter or son, especially one whose father is unbeknownst to her a tomb raider of longstanding, who sees a way to prove her father isn’t dead, or at the very least, find out he is and how.
Who could resist a chance to seize back something from the vast chasm of unknowable, meaningless death, one of life’s great certainties that often leaves more questions than answers for the living left behind?
Certainly not Lara, and in no time flat, she’s pawning her extremely expensive jade necklace, and jetting off to Hong Kong to find the mysterious ship owner Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) who was the man brave enough to take her father into the infamously-named Devil’s Sea to find Yamatai and the buried sorceress, Japan’s first empress Himiko who, legend has it, killed her people off in such numbers that the country’s rivers regularly ran red with blood.
Himiko sounds absolutely charming, her allured enhanced all the more, said tongue-firmly-in-cheek, when you find out that digging her out from the tomb in which her generals encased her would unleash untold terror and evil on an unsuspecting world.
As plots and premises go, Tomb Raider, with a screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, is not going to win any awards for their blistering originality; however, what it does offer up, and be warned it’s so heavy with tropes and cliches it’s a wonder Lu Ren’s ship doesn’t sink enroute to the island, is handled rather nicely by Uthaug.
In many ways, Tomb Raider is a good old-fashioned ’80s/’90s blockbuster, and to be fair to the film’s writers, the plot would have been refreshingly fun and nicely post-modern back in the day.
Now, of course, it’s been-there, done-that, got the meme and it’s gone viral, but even so, the movie makes merry with the story such as it is, using it more as a way of helping us to get to know Lara Croft than as an Indiana Jones-ish adventure in and of itself.
There is a baddy, naturally, who could there not be, in the form of Mathias Vogel (Walter Goggins) who makes sure that Lara’s baptism into the world of extreme tomb raiding is a violent and unwelcoming one, replete with postured threats, gun-toting and vicious snarls.
Again, not seeringly original and you could well argue Goggins just phones it in – although to be fair, his phoning it in is pretty damn good and fits the film just so – but in the context of giving someone for a quickly-wising-up Lara to bump heads up against, he is a worthy foe and one who, you will not be surprised to learn, is bested by Lara on her rookie outing as a tomb raider.
The beauty of this film, which is anchored by a soulful, nuanced performance by Vikander who brings necessarily intense emotional gravity to a role than is far more than that of a plasticised video game heroine, is that it lets itself be dark and thoughtful when it needs to be.
Again, no Oscars are in the offing but what Tomb Raider sets out to do it does well, and that is to give us Lara Croft at the start of her rich and fantastical life when much of the bravery and skills-and-experience heavy self-assurance you saw in Jolie’s performance is yet to coalesce.
Vikander makes this transition from naïve newby who has no idea what her father does on his trips to gutsy adventurer who does what needs to be done, especially against the evil cabal of Trinity who are behind the Himiko exhumation and with whom Croft has a more intimate connection that even she is aware, seem authentic and real, which is quite an achievement when you consider how desperately unreal much of the film’s action set pieces are.
At various points, Croft survives a shipwreck in a storm that should have pummelled her to fish food smithereens, gets to safety after falling into a raging river and getting caught in a teetering rusty WW2 plan wreck atop a waterfall and dodges an impossible number of bullets, but because the film takes the time to establish her as a living, breathing, in-over-her-head person, much of the absurdity of her adventures attains some kind of tenuous believability.
And by tenuous, I definitely do mean tenuous, but it works because blockbusters like Tomb Raider, in common with many of their much older genre mates, mix some humanity in with the rampant suspension of belief, in the process offering up a film that is giddy and silly fun to watch on one hand, and a study in innocence shattered and life remolded in the furnace on the other.
Again, searing existential drama this is not, and you could well argue it’s paper thin in many respects, but it works and works brilliantly, buoyant, escapist adventuring that has just enough rich, emotive characterisation and substance to sustain it’s more light and trope-warped moments.
Like any blockbuster of this ilk, you need to walk in with the expectation that you are not going to be treated to a rich and sustained examination of the human condition; Tomb Raider is not that movie, and nor does it purport to be but it is a highly-entertaining story of one woman’s journey from novice to not-so-novice, all set against a very entertaining and at times, winningly, bleak adventure.
In that respect it has a great deal in common with Spider-Man: Homecoming, which also gave us a rip-roaring coming-of-age tale in quite extraordinary circumstances.
Tomb Raider, much like the legend as its heart, is that rare combination of fanciful and substantial, over-the-top and heartbreakingly down to earth that never forgets, even in its most sustained flights of mythic fancy, that there are real people involved in its exaggerated meandering including one once-wide-eyed talented young lady who discovers there is far more to her and the world around that she could ever have imagined, and takes us engagingly along on her larger-than-life voyage of self-discovery.