“Tomb Raider” may very well be the greatest video game movie ever made. Of course, I say this as someone who believes that there has never, in the history of the medium, been a good video game movie and as someone who is about to give the film at hand a predominantly negative review. But the basic competency on display here places “Tomb Raider” head and shoulders above dreck like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Warcraft” or “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” Only rarely could such baseline mediocrity be something to be celebrated, but that’s the state of the video game movie genre.
“Tomb Raider” takes most of its inspiration from the 2013 reboot of the popular series, following adventurer Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander, “Tulip Fever”) as she goes on a search for her father years after his disappearance. After being shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she becomes a prisoner of Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, “Vice Principals”) and must fight to finish what her father started: Sealing a tomb that, if opened, could bring about the end of the world.
Most of the watchability of “Tomb Raider” comes down to Vikander’s performance in the titular role. From the first scene, she brings to life the independence and strength of the character with relative ease, and her dedication to performing many of her own stunts pays off during the action scenes. While the script gives her increasingly little to do as the film wears on — by the third act, she’s been reduced mainly to grunting and screaming — she still anchors much of the movie around her, even as it commits the cardinal sin of wasting Walton Goggins as a one-note villain.
It’s in the storytelling department where you’ll find most of “Tomb Raider”’s shortcomings. At different points, it plays like a combination of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” and while that may sound fun at first, Roar Uthaug (“The Wave”) is no Steven Spielberg; his film lacks the sense of wonder and discovery that both of those films brought to bear at their best. There’s some fun to the treasure hunt, but many scenes feel like a non-interactive video game, denying the audience the opportunity to feel like they’re solving the puzzles along with Lara. That’s most of the fun of any movie like this, and it’s completely missing here.
For all Vikander’s talents as a physical performer, the action falls prey to Uthaug’s mishandled direction, as well. They aren’t potential health hazards like the action of a “Resident Evil” movie, but the fights in “Tomb Raider” are still wildly overcut and incomprehensible. It’s impossible to have any sort of appreciation for what Vikander is pulling off when you can’t tell what on Earth she’s doing in the first place. Even when the editing slows down, scenes like an extended bike chase through London or a foot chase through the docks add nothing to the story and instead simply pad the runtime. Again, this sort of thing might be fun with a controller in your hands — your average video game campaign runs about 10 to 20 hours and thrives on smaller scale action like this — but in a movie, it’s just a distraction from the plot.
Uthaug’s fumbled direction is ultimately what dooms “Tomb Raider” to the purgatory between good and bad. There’s nothing to outright hate here, but there’s also little that’s memorable. Given that most video game movies are memorable only for their awe-inspiring lack of quality and apathetic performances and writing, “Tomb Raider,” in all its normality, may represent a small step forward.