Tomb Raider, Roar Uthaug, 2018
There are two elements that make Tomb Raider, an otherwise entirely unremarkable piece of hackwork, watchable. The first is that it operates predominantly as a survival picture. That’s distinct from the origin tale doldrums of try/fail/train/succeed to which the pestiferous superhero genre seems to have consigned blockbuster storytelling, and – with credible staging, stunt work and second unit direction, such as we find here – a simple formula for the empathy-tension engine that motorizes a worthy action movie.
The second, and most key, is Alicia Vikander – one of the most engaging physical actors of her moment, and a performer capable of conveying determination and bravery in toe with distress and fear, the latter two often anathema for Hollywood heroes, but fully and refreshingly a part of Vikander’s Lara Croft.
The film opens with Lara’s father (a mechanical Dominic West) seven years missing, last seen searching for the final resting place of Himiko, an ancient and ferocious Japanese queen. Lara – not yet her high-ponytailed, dual-pistoling self, but a bike courier in central London (Borough Market area, for locals) – sets off to retrace her father’s steps, unwilling to accept his disappearance as death.
It’s a perfectly reasonable setup, but it’s about the only thing the script doesn’t get hopelessly wrong – mostly every other characteristic you could tie back to it conspicuously, almost audaciously, derivative (feed this into any consumer-grade plagiarism detector and it’s probably going to return a near 30% match with Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Fortunately it’s the sort of bad scripting that in a picture like this ducks meekly aside, leaving space for the film’s real momentum – the propulsive verve of a character in over her head, hanging on by the skin of her teeth – to truck along unencumbered.
That’s all credit to some quietly accomplished behind camera work – Roar Uthaug, the director, having form on the bruising, visceral survival flick front, his 2015 film The Wave a sort of Euro-arthouse Roland Emmerich. It’s obviously in that calibre that he was recruited to this project, and the fruits are visible in the film’s set pieces: in particular a storm and shipwreck sequence that achieves a genuine sense of scale and force.
Tomb Raider – for all the wretchedness of its writing – delivers an uncommonly raw sort of pleasure in its essential departures from the contemporary mechanics of blockbuster filmmaking. It’s hard to tell if this is a radical revisioning of your staple franchise fare, or if we’ve simply reached such a point where the merely competent feels laudable. In any case, this is Vikander’s film – she its one truly creditable component – and it’s a mostly unobtrusive vehicle for her towering, human, multiplex worthy presence.
Verdict: approach with caution.