It’s been 15 years since the last Tomb Raider movie, 2003’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life. The new film, simply titled Tomb Raider, picks up where the previous one left off: By being another instantly forgettable and thoroughly mediocre Indiana Jones knockoff.

Croft was previously played by Angelina Jolie; this time she’s morphed into the more serious form of Alicia Vikander, whose Tomb Raider is plunked into a story inspired by the 2013 video game reboot of the character that imagined one of Lara’s first adventures on a treacherous island populated by cultists. The film version approximates that plot after a long and tedious prologue about Croft’s pre-raiding life taking MMA lessons, working as a delivery woman, having flashbacks about her long-missing father (Dominic West), and getting into low-stakes bicycle chases through the streets of London.

After what feels like an eternity, Croft finally gets to the island where she hopes to find her dad. Richard Croft left Lara a decade earlier to search for some all-important doodad of antiquity. The bad guys in the film, led by the extremely khaki Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), work for a mysterious organization called Trinity, and they want the doodad too. It supposedly relates to an ancient Japanese legend about “The Death Queen,” who was entombed on an uncharted island to protect the rest of the world from her evil powers. Richard’s the only sensible guy who was like “Hey the lady was called the Death Queen, maybe we should leave her alone?” but of course the final act sees Lara, Vogel, and a bunch of disposal cannon fodder goons wandering through a poorly lit remake of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade anyway, searching for whatever invaluable secret the Death Queen took to her grave.

Warner Bros.
Warner Bros.

The new Tomb Raider is directed by Roar Uthaug, the director of the satisfying Norwegian disaster film The Wave. (Coincidence or not, this film has lots of scenes of Vikander falling into water, hanging off of waterfalls, and surviving assorted near-drownings.) He brings a certain level of intensity to the action scenes; the camera swoops through trees and tracks with Vikander as she runs through jungles or leaps across chasms at top speed. For a movie called Tomb Raider though, there is surprisingly little tomb raiding; at least the final sequence features a couple dopey-yet-fun puzzles reminiscent of a video game. (Vikander even helpfully shouts “It’s a color puzzle!” in exactly the same cadence a video game character might if you got stuck on a particularly tough challenge for too long.) And Goggins, channeling Dirty Harry-era Clint Eastwood, brings the right level of IDGAF to his villainous role.

While the movie is never less than competently staged, it’s also rarely exciting or interesting enough to justify its existence. There is too much backstory about Lara, her absentee father, and his research, none of which matters. There’s even an “origin” scene for the two pistols Lara Croft carries around in most of her video games, contradicting their previous origin, which was that the creators of Tomb Raider franchise watched a ton of John Woo movies in the ’90s. Either way, who cares? If you’ve seen the previous movies, any of the Indiana Joneses, or YouTube videos of bow and arrow tricks, there’s nothing remotely new here.

To her credit, Vikander works hard and looks the part. She also has some chemistry with Daniel Wu, who plays the guy who helps Lara get to the island and then sort of becomes her sidekick. (Then he says “I’m not leaving Lara behind!” and vanishes completely from the movie for about 30 minutes. Oh well.) By the standards of video game movies, Tomb Raider is not terrible, but by the standards of video game movies Plan 9 From Outer Space is practically an Oscar winner. I cannot explain why films based on popular games remain so hard to get right, but we’re now at 20 years of Hollywood consistently screwing it up. This is why I propose a Video Game Movie Threshold Test. Before any new video game movie is put into production, a tribunal of experts on both mediums is convened to read the potential film’s screenplay, look over its designs, and consider its casting. Then they must decide: Would they rather see this movie or play the game it’s based on for the duration of the planned movie’s approximate runtime? If they pick the latter, the project gets shelved. If this Tomb Raider had to cross that threshold, there’s no way it would have been made.

Additional Thoughts:

-Some of the tomb scenes and jungle chases were so dark at my screening you literally couldn’t see the actors’ faces. I’m hoping it was an isolated projection issue.

-When Tomb Raider opens in theaters this weekend, there will be two high-profile blockbusters about heroic young women who were abandoned by their brilliant fathers as children. (A Wrinkle in Time is the other.) Movie dads: You really need to be more present in your kids’ lives.


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