[This story contains spoilers for Warner Bros.’ Tomb Raider.]
An encouraging, if coincidental, theme of big movies in 2018 so far is a wealth of non-white-male representation onscreen. Last week, Disney released an adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time with a diverse cast of younger and big-name actors. A few weeks ago, Marvel’s Black Panther became a legitimate phenomenon, resonating with black audiences around the world. This week, Warner Bros. is hoping to capitalize on this positive notion with its revival of Tomb Raider; while it’s a good thing to have a woman in a brawny action film as its lead, this new movie is a bit of a stumble.
Recent Oscar winner Alicia Vikander stars as Lara Croft, a young woman making her way as a bike messenger in London in spite of a very wealthy family background. After a run-in with the police, Lara’s past is revealed: Her father (Dominic West) has been missing for years, and she’s set to inherit a very large fortune. In exploring more about his disappearance, though, Lara decides to try and retrace his steps as he aimed to unearth the remains of a Japanese “death queen” who had the ability to kill men with a single touch. Lara’s exploration brings her to an uncharted Japanese island, where she learns more about her father and the legend that drew him there, and eventually becomes the Lara Croft everyone may recognize from the early video game that made the character so popular.
Though Tomb Raider is not without its moment-to-moment charms, what sinks the film is not that the story relies on the audience watching a woman fend off various men with her fists, a bow and arrow and a pickaxe. Vikander does a solid job of building Lara Croft from the ground up; when we first see Lara, she’s being defeated in hand-to-hand combat at a London boxing gym. By the end of the film, she has become dominant, fighting a ruthless archeologist (Walton Goggins) and saving the world from the scourge of that Japanese death queen. But perhaps the biggest problem with Tomb Raider is how obvious its inspirations are. To wit, the pic often feels like the answer to the question, “What if Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was about a woman and her father, and didn’t have a sense of humor?”
The premise of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is keenly felt in Tomb Raider. Both films are about adventurers on a quest to find the father they presume is missing, if not dead. Both movies eventually reveal that the hero’s father is still very much alive. Both feature the father and child working against a cruel and selfish villain. The similarities stretch to the climax, when Lara and her father must (along with Goggins’ baddie) go through a series of tasks to reach the tomb of the death queen. In Last Crusade, the tasks include a “leap of faith” across a seemingly invisible chasm; in Tomb Raider, the chasm is real and can only be traversed across a rickety ladder. In Last Crusade, one task includes negotiating carefully across a series of stones that, when stepped upon the wrong way, give way to an abyss; in Tomb Raider, there’s also a series of stones that give way to an abyss. And so on. On one hand, there are worse films from which to crib (or raid) than an Indiana Jones entry. On the other hand, if you’re going to crib from Indiana Jones, be sneaky about it.
And don’t leave behind the humor. Tomb Raider is as much about setting up the origin story of Lara Croft, from bike messenger to pickaxe-wielding badass, as it is about the literal raiding of a tomb. (Though technically, someone else raids tombs in this movie.) But much of what happens in the film is, on its face, goofy. Yet there’s very few one-liners in the pic, and they aren’t terribly witty or memorable. During one of the stronger set-pieces, as Lara evades bad guys by first going down some rushing rapids and then avoiding a waterfall, all she can muster when the latest obstacle to her safety occurs is an exasperated “Really?” The chemistry that Vikander has with Daniel Wu, who plays a boat captain who helps her reach the island, is strong, in part because it’s the one aspect of the film that doesn’t feel overly self-important or serious. (But the pic’s handling of race is vexing: Wu’s character vanishes for large portions, and when Lara first arrives in Hong Kong to investigate her dad’s disappearance, she’s frustrated that no one speaks English and is attacked by local toughs with switchblades.)
Placing a woman as the lead of a big-budget action movie is always a step in the right direction, and Vikander mostly pulls off the movie-long arc, feeling much more assured and self-confident by the finale of Tomb Raider. But the film in which she’s starring is too convinced of its own dour tone, the one big shift that differentiates it from the much better adventure it has raided. Lara Croft has always felt heavily inspired by Indiana Jones, but the inspiration is enough to weigh this movie down, its diverse aims aside.