The first Tomb Raider game came out over twenty years ago. Back then, the franchise’s hero Lara Croft was nothing more than a cubist array of clunky polygons. Players spent the game shooting at dinosaurs and dodging booby traps. The games have only gotten more sophisticated since then, with 2013’s Tomb Raider and its sequel reinventing the franchise, thanks to realistic physics and a humanized Lara.
The new Tomb Raider film has the same sensibilities as the reboot: instead of skimpy costumes and improbable features, director Roar Uthaug does not sexualize this Lara. It is a welcome change: as Lara, Alicia Vikander brings a visceral, vulnerable quality to the role. But for all the improvements, this Tomb Raider runs into the same problem that comes with any video game adaptation. It is impossible to make a good movie based on a video game.
You may think I’m exaggerating, but consider the evidence. From Super Mario Bros. onward through Mortal Kombat and Assassin’s Creed, there has never been a good movie based on a video game. Sure, there are some critics who celebrate Paul WS Anderson’s visual stylings in the Resident Evil franchise, and others still who defend the Silent Hill, but they do not represent the consensus.
Now there have been films that cleverly incorporate video game elements into them: the grind of Edge of Tomorrow mirrors how a player learns the details of a challenging shooter, while The Raid follows an escalation of faceless, fighting henchman until the bland hero faces a challenging boss. And while there have been films based on toys and board games, no filmmaker can overcome the fundamental hurdle: the active experience of “play” and passive experience of “watching” are completely incongruous.
The last video game I finished was Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In it, you play BJ Blazkowicz, a Jewish soldier who almost single-handedly wages war against the Nazis in an alternative history where Hitler takes over the world. The game is gloriously insane, and there is real catharsis when mowing down waves of Nazis. Still, the most powerful moment in the game happens when (SPOILER ALERT) you stand trial in a kangaroo court, and then your sworn enemy decapitates you on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. It is the act of play that makes this moment stand out: you’re robbed of your body and your power, and you have no choice but watch helplessly (a Jewish scientist ultimately preserves your head, Futurama style).
Like the twist in Bioshock or the battles in Shadow of the Colossus, these game designers recognize that your participation is key to any connection with the material. As a medium, film simply cannot recreate that feeling, no matter how much the movie studios and game developers try (Tomb Raider was co-produced by Square Enix, the Japanese video game studio that absorbed the franchise from the original developer Eidos).
Toward the end of the film, there is scene where Lara must solve a puzzle before she and her companions fall to their doom. The wording of the riddle, coupled with the solution, has a video game vibe to it. If I were controlling Lara, I could see myself replaying through the puzzle several times. But since I am watching Lara and the conclusion is foregone, my only reaction is to think, “This would be way more exciting to play.” Some of the influences are more subtle: Uthaug sometimes frames Vikander from the same perspective as a third person platforming game, while her handling of a bow and arrow borrows from the 2013 reboot.
Another similarity between Tomb Raider (the movie) and video games generally is the derivative plot. The story here borrows heavily from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, since both involve a young adventurer following their father’s obsessions to exotic locales. Dominic West plays the Sean Connery role: Lara’s father Robert is driven by his need to find the tomb of Humiko, an ancient Japanese queen who wreaked havoc on her people. She assumes her father’s mantle reluctantly. At first, she merely wants to learn the secret of his disappearance, only to discover how it’s connected to Humiko. This means that Lara jumps from London to Hong Kong, eventually landing on an uninhabited Japanese island (Tomb Raider has an unpleasant orientalist steak to it, right down to Asian extras relegated to the background).
What makes the film so frustrating is that there are chunks of it that are genuinely exciting. Vikander’s performance as Lara works because she’s like Indiana Jones insofar that she sucks at her job. She gets her ass kicked a lot, and there is a vulnerability to every chase and death-defying escape. There is no psychological plausibility to the role, and instead Vikander plays Lara like the toughest underdog player on American Ninja Warrior. There is a moment midway through the film where Lara has no recourse but to kill a man with her bare hands. You can tell she is disturbed by what she does; her wails take on a suffering that is uncommon to the genre. As long Vikander does not talk – the script is full of grim platitudes – there is an agreeable power to the role.
What ultimately derails Tomb Raider is how seriously everyone handles the material. There are hardly any jokes, and a premise this absurd needs actors to chew the scenery a little bit. This is doubly disappointing because Walton Goggins, a delightful character actor who chews scenery better than anyone in Hollywood, is utter comatose as the villain. Unlike Ernie Hudson in Congo, for example, no one seems to realize they are supposed to have a little fun.
And you know why? Square Enix, Uthaug, Vikander, and the rest forget they’re not in a video game. A film won’t have the same payoff when you’re not controlling your avatar. At best, Tomb Raider is like watching your friend play on a Xbox controller.