Director Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider feels like a journey back to a time before the increasingly photorealistic animation and cinematic storytelling of video games rendered film adaptations of video-game properties largely moot. The film is a painfully literal adaptation of its source material, in this case Crystal Dynamics’s reboot of the Tomb Raider video-game franchise, right down to certain shots that perfectly recreate the 2013 game’s cutscenes. The alterations are meant to streamline the game’s plot into a tidy two-hour window, yet nearly every single change made by the filmmakers muddies the material so significantly that the result is an incomprehensible mess.
Take the film’s protagonist, Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), who was once an untested but nonetheless capable survivalist motivated by the desire to clear her explorer family’s disgraced name and win back its fortune. Here, she’s more of a noble-hearted trust-fund kid, unwilling to collect on her inheritance if it means accepting the death of her long-missing father, Richard (Dominic West). We meet her as a bike courier struggling to make ends meet, even though billions of dollars await her at the stroke of a pen—meaning that this budding action hero is pretty much the subject of Pulp’s “Common People.” Once she receives a puzzle pointing toward Richard’s last known whereabouts, Lara morphs into a shockingly competent adventurer, getting herself to Hong Kong and commissioning a boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), to take her to a mysterious and treacherous Japanese island using Richard’s cryptic coordinates. Now, if only Richard didn’t direly warn of cursed treasure.
Lara and Lu make it to the island under a hellacious storm, only to be captured by Matias (Walton Goggins), who leads a group of mercenaries hired by Trinity, a clandestine, ancient order that seeks supernatural artifacts. But Trinity’s imposing power is instantly blunted by how swiftly Lara proves to be as capable a killer as she does a puzzle-solving explorer. The speed of her ascent into a casual, unemotional action star loses the game’s best attribute: that of the character’s moral descent from feeling trauma over necessary violence to battle-hardened calm. Even Lara’s first kill, a brutal close-quarters fight that ends with her frantically drowning a man in mud, barely elicits an emotional response from her, and in no time she’s firing arrows into well-trained combatants as if she’d been doing this her whole life.
This Lara is somehow more programmatic than her computer-generated counterpart, so locked into the film’s narrative sprint that she can spare no time to feel anything. Vikander, an actress who excels at animating deeper concerns behind characters’ thick outer shells, has so little to do when not performing stunts that her face goes blank, and she often delivers dialogue not to other characters, but out into a middle distance.
While sanding away all of Lara’s personality traits to pull focus on her as a pure action icon, the film forgets to assemble anything approaching a decent action sequence. Uthaug betrays a thorough lack of action fundamentals from the start, botching a scene of Lara sparring in an M.M.A. gym by staying so close to the two opponents that it’s hard to tell the otherwise distinct actresses apart, with multiple cuts accompanying every single move. An insipidly lighthearted bike race pads out the first act for no discernible reason and recalls the worst sequences of early Fast and the Furious movies in its faux-streetwise extraneousness. And when the time for tomb raiding arrives at last, Uthaug’s disorienting close-ups are matched against massive subterranean layers rendered in hideous CGI, resulting in some moments that are genuinely incomprehensible jumbles of blurred motion.
Above all, everything in Tomb Raider is conspicuously and tediously functional. The film is relentlessly focused on giving Lara a background for all of her actions, using the opening M.M.A. practice to set up a later escape from a sleeper hold and providing flashbacks of a child Lara taking archery to establish her deadly accuracy with a bow. Then there are moments that translate video-game mechanics so literally that we see Lara do menial game tasks like use exposed beams as makeshift monkey bars for crossing gaps. This isn’t an adaptation of a video game so much as an adaptation of a video game’s tutorial level, and one that’s capped by a climax that’s as much about Lara discovering the climbing axe she uses throughout the game as it is dealing with the Japanese island’s deepest secret. It takes a lot to waste a gift like Goggins in a villain role, but watching him play second fiddle to a disposable piece of gear is the final indignity of this interminable slog.