We might finally have a winner.
Growing up playing video games, my generation has been waiting year after year for a good movie adaptation of a video game. Hell, we would settle for just average at this point. The genre kicked off back in 1993 with the ridiculously inept Super Mario Bros. and has continued to be a wasteland of shit since. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy watching several of them (I might even defend a couple as solid), but I recognize just how bad most of them are. Of all of the movies in the genre, the peak critic rating (Rotten Tomatoes) is 44% for Final Fantasy. When I heard Michael Fassbender was cast in Assassin’s Creed, I thought maybe Hollywood was finally going to put an honest effort into a video game movie. Then, I watched Assassin’s Creed and cried myself to sleep that night.
So, did I learn my lesson upon hearing Alicia Vikander was cast as Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider reboot? Of course not! In fact, in preparation for the film, I devoted a healthy amount of time to playing the 2013 video game reboot that this film was based on and I found the game to be quite good and fun. I even broke my rule of never watching previews and those previews did not scare me off either (despite featuring a terrible scene with Lara holding two pistols and cockily saying “I’ll take two”). It also helps that I would watch Alicia Vikander read a phone book for two hours, but I digress.
(Side note: Don’t judge me. I would also watch Michael Fassbender read a phone book for two hours.)
If pictures speak a thousand words, they should use her voice.
If you are looking for an explanation for why video game movies almost universally suck, it is because the stories and elements of those video games are almost universally absurd and poorly written (note: they have gotten much better in recent years). To be fair, many comic books are also absurd or poorly written and Marvel figured out how to make great movies, so that isn’t a good excuse. This new Tomb Raider flick appears to have taken note of that.
(Very mild SPOILERS, but nothing you can’t predict.)
Unlike the idiotic and convoluted plot of the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film in 2001, Tomb Raider (2018) takes the video game plot and streamlines it. Lara’s dad (Dominic West) has been presumed dead after going missing seven years earlier. Lara discovers what her dad was working on and a clue to his whereabouts and sets off to find him. She enlists a Chinese boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to take her to a mythical island called Yamatai where she believes her father to have vanished. After crashing on the shoals surrounding the island, Lara and Lu Ren are captured by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been on the island for seven years searching for the tomb of an ancient Japanese Queen named Himiko who was believed to possess powerful magic. The company Mathias works for (Trinity) believes Himiko’s body still possesses power and wants that power. In short, Lara wants to find her dad and Mathias wants to find Himiko’s tomb and, obviously, their paths cross and action ensues. The end.
I knew we would discover a good plot.
What I found refreshing was that the movie doesn’t stray down roads filled with mythical or fantastical nonsense. They talk about the legend surrounding Himiko, but the film doesn’t inundate the viewer with scenes or stunts designed to convince us of the magic. Rather, it stays grounded in its reality and focused on its main plot while only vaguely hinting that an evil sorceress may be unleashed. This allows the movie to retain suspense, shrouding Himiko in mystery and only exposing the truth when her tomb is finally discovered. Despite Lara’s father’s insistence that releasing Himiko from her tomb will unleash evil on the world, resurrected dead aren’t constantly popping out of the shadows and people aren’t killed by magical curses or demons. It’s a good old-fashioned tomb raid reminiscent of why the Indiana Jones movies were so fun. If somebody’s face is going to melt, it won’t be until they actually open the box.
Nothing weird has happened yet. I say we open it. Who’s with me?
The small cast of main and supporting characters were also a breath of fresh air. Yes, there were plenty of disposable characters, but the four I discussed earlier are the cream of the film. Goggins is in his element as the menacing villain, willing to stop at nothing to accomplish his mission for a surprisingly relatable reason. West and Wu are solid, though I would have liked to have seen Wu given more to do (if you have seen him in Into the Badlands, you know what I am talking about). Most importantly, Vikander owns this movie and her role, making us forget the fever dreams caused by Angelina Jolie’s awful portrayal of Croft. Vikander delivers a character that is strong, but not invincible; intelligent, but prone to making common sense mistakes. In other words, she is human (though looks like she went on Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine training regimen, not that I am complaining).
The last thing of note is how well they incorporated elements of the game into the film without making them seem completely ridiculous. In the game, Lara wields a climbing ax and a rope ascender, both of which only make cameos in the film. There are also a couple of action sequences pulled straight from the game which worked really well in the film and do not go over the top. They even dressed Vikander exactly like Lara from the game, all the way down to the bandages on her arm and leg and Lara being covered in dirt most of the time. The only negative criticism I have is they tacked on that shitty “I’ll take two” scene just before the credits roll as an homage to the original game from two decades ago (or worse, the original film). The game reboot got rid of that for a reason and so should have this film.
Trust me – it works.
The moral of this story is that we finally have a video game movie that doesn’t make us want to quit movies (and video games) or only watch them when nobody else is looking. It reminds us of fun adventure movies that didn’t have to resort to pure fantasy to keep our attention. It means that we don’t have to pretend any more that Resident Evil movies are watchable video game flicks because the bar was set so low back in 1993.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and make sure Vikander always has a phone book nearby.