Tomb Raider Review: A Moderate Leap, But Major Progress

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Earlier this year, I expressed a sincere hope that the new “Tomb Raider” movie would finally do something that no other video game movie had managed to do. I hoped that it would be to video game movies what the original “X-men” was to modern superhero movies. I’d even hoped that Lara Croft could be to video game characters what “Wonder Woman” was to female superheroes.

That last one might have been hoping for too much, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Hollywood get at least one movie based on a video game really right. Between the lackluster “Resident Evil” movies and the god-awful “Super Mario Bros,” the genre is overdue for a hit.

I get that there are challenges associated with making a movie out of a video game. However, Lara Croft and “Tomb Raider” is in a better position than most. It’s a franchise that has an iconic character who has built a strong fanbase over the course of two decades. The fact that she’s a strong, sexy female character at a time when the appetite for such characters is greater than ever works even more to her benefit.

While Lara Croft’s sex appeal has been controversial in recent years, she’s still a great character whose games already have a very cinematic feel. Having played her 2013 game multiple times, I can attest to the strength of that narrative. It has all the necessary elements that translate well to a movie.

This movie, being a franchise that has already attempted twice with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s to mixed success, seems to make a better effort than most to succeed where so many have fail. This version of “Tomb Raider” works hard to tell a real, serious story on par with that of any other successful action franchise. It tries to do this while still incorporating elements of the game into the narrative.

It’s ambitious and sincere. It also helps that it cast Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning actress whose brilliance and sex appeal in “Ex Machina” made her well-suited to the role. Criticisms of her having the necessary boobs for the role aside, Ms. Vikander can act and be sexy in her own right. It’s only a matter of whether she can channel that talent into making “Tomb Raider” succeed where so many others have failed.

Well, having seen the movie on its opening weekend, I’d like to offer my assessment on this matter. While I’ll always be haunted, to some extent, by terrible video game movies like “Super Mario Bros,” I went in feel genuinely hopeful for this movie. I was also bracing myself, knowing as well as anyone the history of video game movies.

With that mentality going into the theater, I eagerly gave “Tomb Raider” and Alicia Vikander the benefit of the doubt. By the time I came out of the theater, I was able to come to a simple conclusion, albeit one with a few caveats.

Yes, this is a good movie, but it’s not a game-changer.

It’s true. “Tomb Raider” is an genuinely good video game movie. I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to say that with a straight face in my lifetime, but I can and it’s worth saying again. This is a good movie.

By that, I mean the movie has a concise, well-crafted story from start to finish. The movie establishes who Lara Croft is, what she’s dealing with, and what kind of person she is. The plot isn’t too messy. The effects aren’t too cheesy. The acting is actually good and not just from Ms. Vikander. Everyone in this movie seems to make a real, honest effort.

Like the 2013 video game, the movie follows a young, inexperienced Lara Croft who has yet to become the sexy badass that went onto inspire so much lurid fan art. However, by the end of the movie, you can already see traces of that sexy badass growing within her. As a character, she grows and evolves over the course of the movie. Watching her grow and seeing her struggle at times is genuinely compelling.

The story and the details surrounding it are tight and well-organized. At no point in the movie is there a scene that feels random, contrived, or forced. The events that unfold happen organically, from Lara getting arrested early in the movie to unlocking the secrets to an ancient tomb on the hidden island of Yamatai. Nothing ever just happens. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the story.

It’s a story that is not bland or predictable, even to those who played the 2013 game multiple times, like I did. The movie downplays some of the more mystical elements of Lara Croft’s mythos, but still incorporates plenty of the over-the-top machinations that Tomb Raider and “Indiana Jones” fans alike can appreciate.

However, it’s that effort to make the movie feel less fanciful that, in my opinion, keeps it from being the kind of game-changing movie that “X-men” and “Wonder Woman” were. While “Tomb Raider” qualifies as a good movie, it doesn’t do enough to be a truly great movie.

This movie, in many respects, plays it safe. While it puts Lara through plenty of tough situations, things never get too dire for her. She’s allowed to suffer and endure wounds, but only to a point. Others, including her father as played by Dominic West, arguably endure a whole lot more.

Safe or not, it’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t try to do too much all at once. Movies that do that tend to get messy, as many recent Michael Bay films can attest. I think “Tomb Raider” did the right thing, playing it safe and keeping things simple. It left some of its potential on the table, but did plenty to leave much of that potential available for future sequels.

That’s somewhat of a gamble, though. Too many movies, these days, are made solely with sequels in mind and sometimes that assumes too much. Anyone who saw “Green Lantern” or “The Mummy” can attest to that. At least with “Tomb Raider,” the ending and the revelations it offers actually leave you feeling excited for a sequel.

That’s a gamble that may or may not pay off. I’m aware that this movie did not exactly set the box office on fire, especially in a market still dominated by “Black Panther.” However, it did manage to pull in some decent numbers overseas and that might give this movie the fuel it needs to become a full-fledged franchise.

Again, the movie does have flaws. If you go into “Tomb Raider” looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll find them. If you think Ms. Vikander wasn’t sexy enough, you’ll find points in the movie to vindicate that. Conversely, if you think Ms. Vikander was too sexy and her portrayal in this movie is contributing to sexism and the objectification of women, you’ll find instances of that too.

If, however, you go in hoping for a good, coherent movie that tells a compelling, dramatic story, you’ll find that “Tomb Raider” delivers. In fact, I would argue that it delivers in ways no video game movie has ever managed before. It doesn’t do quite enough to be a new “Wonder Woman,” but it achieves far more than any previous video game movie has ever dared.

If I were to score this movie, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10 or a 7.5 out of 10 at the lowest. “Tomb Raider” has an opportunity to redefine a maligned movie genre and it succeeds. With other movies like “Rampage” coming out this year, the situation is ripe for a new generation of video game movies that aren’t terrible.

Whether your a fan of the games, a fan of action movies, or just looking for a great female character played by someone other than Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson, “Tomb Raider” will give you plenty to enjoy. It may still be a while before we can relegate movies like “Super Mario Bros” to the same dusty bin as “Batman and Robin,” but “Tomb Raider” offers a critical first step.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Movie Reviews, sex in media, video games

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