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[This story contains spoilers for Tomb Raider]
With her starring role in the Tomb Raider revival, Alicia Vikander has stepped into some big shoes. Though Lara Croft has been an iconic video-game character for more than two decades, she’s best known in film thanks to one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Angelina Jolie. Now, Jolie is high up on the A-List, but when she starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, she wasn’t yet a household name. Vikander and Jolie may play the same character with a few similarities, but their two Lara Crofts are plenty different.
It’s an odd coincidence that both Jolie and Vikander took the part of Lara Croft when they were fresh off a best supporting actress Oscar win — Jolie for for 1999’s Girl, Interrupted, Vikander for 2015’s The Danish Girl. When Jolie took on the role, there were criticisms from diehard fans of the video game series that her being American and not … proportioned to the physical design of the character were setbacks. (Thankfully, Lara Croft isn’t treated like a sex object in the new film, but that’s a large part of what she used to be.) Moreover, the two films featuring Jolie as Lara Croft placed audiences in the middle of her life, whereas we’re now getting an origin story that blends the dourness of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins with the adventurous setup of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
While the new Tomb Raider doesn’t work very well, the one area of that needs no improvement is in casting Vikander. By the end, it’s clear that the writers are interested in making sure fans know how she got some of her trademark weapons (as well as her long-braided hair). Vikander is able to pull off a believable arc throughout, even if the film around her refuses to be more lighthearted despite being utterly goofy. The Lara Croft of the Angelina Jolie era — you know, the one who punches a shark—was essentially a cartoonish superhero. The Lara Croft of this movie, when faced with a wide gap over which to jump lest she get killed, takes her time (maybe a bit too much time) before making the leap. By the end of Tomb Raider, this Lara Croft, no matter how much she might say otherwise, is a bit like the Croft of old, but Vikander makes her feel grounded.
What Vikander brings to the part is almost negated by the film’s unavoidable roots in video-game technology. As much as she clearly has thrown herself into being Lara Croft, it’s not hard to wonder which of the film’s action set pieces first existed in video-game form. From the perspective of this writer (who hasn’t played any Lara Croft games), one of the film’s biggest highlights, in which she escapes the clutches of some mostly faceless baddies on a deserted island, feels like it must have been a direct lift. The best of that sequence’s tension comes from Lara trying to avoid plunging down a waterfall thanks to a conveniently placed, but deserted and desiccated plane that can barely hold her weight; as much as director Roar Uthaug is able to coherently establish and build suspense, it also feels like he and the production team were mirroring what gamers saw a few years ago.
Such moments, which are meant to highlight how tough Lara becomes throughout this story, come at the expense of Vikander attempting to make the heroine feel as realistic as possible. And the dramatic side of the story, in which Lara reunites with her long-missing father Richard (Dominic West), suffers in spite of the two performers’ talent. Both Lara and her father have an annoying inability to communicate directly with each other; when Richard leaves behind instructions for Lara to burn all of his research regarding a Japanese myth, she instead follows that research to the island he was looking for. At the end of the film, after Richard sacrifices himself to save Lara, she returns home, signs a document that gives her a long-held inheritance, but also makes her realize that her father’s longtime associate (Kristin Scott Thomas) may be running the nefarious organization that Richard was fighting against. Even more, Lara learns that her father’s company owns that evil group, which seems like one of those things Richard might have wanted to tell Lara before he died. Alas.
Vikander does her best job as Lara Croft, and the film slides into the notion early on that she might not seem tough enough to pull off the part. It is to the film’s advantage that the script builds up her origins, because it allows us to accept her more fully as the gritty heroine by the end. What Lara goes through gives her the requisite experience to make her more of a badass. The problem, though, is that Tomb Raider is very much the kind of big-budget action film that falls apart as soon as you think about it. True, there’s nothing quite so outrageous here as there was in the Angelina Jolie-starring efforts, but that only makes it easier to pick apart this film. Vikander’s talent shines through, to the point where it’s painfully obvious that she’s much, much better than a Lara Croft movie ever could deserve.
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