Alicia Vikander gets the hell beaten out of her in Tomb Raider. In this muscular, uneven, ultimately disappointing reboot of the videogame action franchise once guided by Angelina Jolie, the Oscar-winner gives a performance that’s believably, arrestingly physical—she runs, punches and jumps with aplomb. But what’s perhaps most remarkable is the vulnerability she brings to the role of globetrotting adventurer Lara Croft. No matter the gargantuan CGI obstacles thrown her way—no matter the stabbings, bruisings and concussions she endures—she reveals a steeliness tempered by the acknowledgement of the pain and terror she’s feeling at every moment. It’s Tomb Raider’s sole concession to the limits of physics and the human body, and it’s easily this impersonal film’s most likable element. Unfortunately, the one thing Croft and Vikander can’t defeat is the merciless machinery of the Hollywood blockbuster.
Previously displaying an enigmatic robotic chill in Ex Machina and then a resolute compassion in The Danish Girl, Vikander takes to action-hero mode with intelligence and even a speck of sensitivity, which can be rare for big-budget spectacles. She plays Croft as a restless soul still adrift after the disappearance of her beloved father Richard (Dominic West) seven years ago. Refusing to believe he’s dead, she stumbles upon a series of clues that lead to a hidden room, all of which point to the fact that dear old dad went on a clandestine journey and left metaphorical breadcrumbs for her to follow. Enlisting the help of a drunken ship captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), she sets out to find Richard, leading to an ominous island, a deranged mercenary (Walton Goggins) and a legendary tomb that may contain a lethal curse.
With its allusions to Indiana Jones and its shameless copping of the frenetic razzle-dazzle of contemporary action filmmaking, Tomb Raider can be enjoyable junk. Director Roar Uthaug (the Norwegian drama The Wave) efficiently propels Vikander through the frame, whether she’s roaring through busy streets on a bike, about to plunge over the edge of a waterfall or desperately leaping across a perilous ravine. This reboot invests in its character arc—depicting Croft as a young woman who’s become a survivor despite longing to reconnect with her father—but not at the expense of skimping on the pyrotechnics audiences would expect from a film like this.
Ironically, in a week where online trolls have stupidly complained that Vikander doesn’t have the busty physique required to play the role—essentially demanding that a human resemble the unrealistic proportions of a ludicrous, sexist videogame design—it’s her flesh-and-blood emoting that gives Tomb Raider its life force.
Each time Croft barely escapes another scrape—each time she takes another shot to the face from a bad guy—the actress shrieks, whimpers and groans, connecting the audience with the physical agony of her character’s ordeal. It’s an astounding thing to watch Vikander go through hell to find her father, bleeding and crying along the way. Nobody would confuse Tomb Raider’s adrenalized cinema with realism—any mere mortal surely would have died several times attempting what Croft does—but Uthaug and his star do what they can to bring some gravity to her quest. The film doesn’t make Croft seem weaker than comparable male action heroes by showing her fragility—if anything, it emphasizes her guts and resilience, when most any of us would have wilted in the face of such long odds.
But while Vikander is an indomitable force, the movie is more meager. The supporting cast is game, although the actors eventually all get sucked into the undertow of their clichéd roles. The reveal of Richard’s whereabouts doesn’t have sufficient wallop, and the showdown on the island—including the de rigueur expedition into the spooky, ridiculously elaborate tomb—plays out pretty conventionally. And that’s to say nothing of a copout ending that humiliatingly strains to both satisfy longtime Lara Croft fans and get audiences pumped for a sequel. Outside of Vikander’s performance, Tomb Raider tends to go on autopilot, either too scared or uninspired to reimagine this blah action-adventure material. Croft has to go through so much—it would be nice if she didn’t have to fight her own movie, too.
Director: Roar Uthaug
Writers: Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (screenplay); Evan Daugherty and Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story)
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas
Release Date: March 16, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.