Crossing gaping chasms is a typical day’s work for Lara Croft, the most limber archaeologist since Harrison Ford made running and jumping an essential requirement of the job. So hold your applause at the news that Croft’s latest leap from console to multiplex clears a couple of very low bars, set by the dopey Angelina Jolie installments of last decade and by video-game adaptations in general. As directed by Roar Uthaug, who made the Norwegian disaster movie The Wave, this Tomb Raider is a competently staged origin-story reboot, grounding the character’s globe-trotting, puzzle-solving adventures in something like a physical and even emotional reality. What’s missing, quite critically, is the sense that anyone involved saw more than a renewable franchise and milkable intellectual property in the exploits of an X-treme spelunker. When it comes to what should be the reliably dumb fun of tomb raiding, maybe there are worse crimes than insulting viewers’ intelligence or bombarding them with crappy special effects. Boring them? Now that’s a felony offense.
Croft herself has always been more of an archetype than a character; like Wonder Woman, she exists at the nexus of empowering and exploitative, breaking ground for female representation in a male-dominated gaming arena while also fulfilling plenty of pubescent fantasies. Perhaps the best that can be said for the new Tomb Raider is that it sees this enduring emblem of distaff-Allan Quatermain cool as an actual human being. Like the last actor to don the turquoise tank top and calf-high boots, Alicia Vikander is chasing a Supporting Actress Oscar win with a paycheck blockbuster gig. But if 2001’s terminally silly Lara Croft: Tomb Raider reduced Jolie to a poseable action figure, a supermodel badass who never broke a sweat, Vikander is at least afforded a little flesh-and-blood vulnerability. When we first meet her, she’s getting her ass handed to her in a boxing ring. From there, it’s feverish battles against inclement weather and raging rapids, and knock-down drag-out fights in the mud—a gauntlet of actual physical duress, the difficulty of which Vikander telegraphs with every yelp of pain and exhausted stagger. Prick her and she bleeds. It’s a makeover of the Casino Royale variety.
The film ports this more fallible Croft over from another revisionist reboot, 2013’s Uncharted-biting Tomb Raider, which reimagined the pistol-packing action heroine as a green daredevil, brand new to derring-do. Also borrowed from that bestseller, albeit loosely, is the plot, which sends Lara across treacherous waters to a mythical Japanese island, said to be the final resting place of a cursed sorceress. But while the game pulled the classic 007 in-media-res trick of thrusting players right into the action, this Tomb Raider blows an interminable 45 minutes reintroducing the character, a 21-year-old heiress slumming it as an East London bike courier, seven years after the mysterious disappearance of her mogul-adventurer father (Dominic West). Like Bruce Wayne, Lara wants to be more than her vast fortune and influential family name—to cut her own path through history. But she’s haunted by sepia-toned flashbacks to her father, and fate soon finds her retracing Dad’s steps straight into the Devil’s Sea, accompanied by a drunken Hong Kong sailor (Into The Badlands’ Daniel Wu) with a parental absence of his own.
The daddy-issues motivation is one element that Vikander’s Tomb Raider shares with Jolie’s; the latter cast its star’s real father, Jon Voight, as the missing Lord Croft—a stunty shortcut to emotional stakes. Here, the whole picture hinges on this sentimental familial bond, and it’s not entirely an improvement. Tomb Raider is the kind of draggy, weirdly uneventful blockbuster that makes you fleetingly grateful for the lowest-aiming genre junk; at times, it seems perversely uninterested in delivering what a Lara Croft movie theoretically should. Even once we reach the island, where Walton Goggins shows up as a marooned scoundrel mad with ambition, Tomb Raider never quite transitions into a set-piece machine; its second half rushes through a dump of mythological exposition while treating the “good stuff”—treacherous puzzles, swinging booby traps, run-and-gun showdowns—like perfunctory stops on a checklist. Curiously, the film seems less influenced by Raiders Of The Lost Ark than another Steven Spielberg event movie, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, from which it filches the primo trailer-hanging-off-the-cliff sequence, minus the hair-trigger suspense (and, of course, the dinosaurs—boy, could this movie use some dinosaurs). It’s not a great sign that the best action scene is an early, low-stakes bicycle chase across busy London streets.
Perhaps some will be charmed by the almost-old-fashioned, practically achieved, deliberately paced spectacle that Tomb Raider offers. In a way, it’s closer to a ’90s action movie than the more ’90s-adjacent Jolie version. But beyond a scene of Vikander sprinting though the jungle like a cheetah, bow and arrow at the ready, the film never taps into the giddy adolescent potential of its material—the feeling that it’s been made to inspire wonder or excitement or even amusement in the audience it courts. As a video game, Tomb Raider wore its cinematic influences loudly and proudly, serving up Indiana Jones for a new generation; the only thing new and innovative about it, beyond the gender swap, was the gameplay. Without the interactive component, we’re just watching moldy movie tropes retranslated back into movie form. And by the end, the craven franchise aspirations have obliterated even the very modest retro appeal, as Tomb Raider turns to the very important business of explaining where Lara Croft got her signature weaponry and when she started wearing her hair in a ponytail. The deadening irrelevance of prequel cinema is a pitfall even this dexterous adventurer can’t vault.