Lara Croft Begins


Of course her father has a secret room built underneath the family mausoleum, accessed only by a key hidden within an ancient Chinese puzzle. Of course the walls of this room are covered in photographs, newspaper clippings and map fragments forming a mosaic of crazy out of years of research. Of course there’s a camcorder with a note to ‘play me’ sitting in the middle of all of this mess. Of course the camcorder has Dr. Richard Croft’s last message to his daughter, Lara, and he implores her to burn all his notes and forget about all of this.

Of course she doesn’t.

So begins Tomb Raider, Warner Brothers’s latest attempt at adapting the now classic video game franchise. The previous tries began with 2001’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, and then followed on in 2003 with Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Both star Angelina Jolie as the eponymous character, and both reflected, for the most part, the state of Tomb Raiding in the beginning of the 21st century. With the release of Square Enix’s reboot of the video games in 2013, Lara Croft was recast from a uber-competent mercenary with ample… skills and abilities, to a normal young woman who finds herself way over her head in her earliest adventures. This Tomb Raider follows suit, matching the later games.

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) is Lara Croft in the new movie. Lara is a young woman working as a bike courier in London, even though she apparently stands to inherit millions of dollars from her father (Dominic West, The Wire). You see, Lara doesn’t believe that her father is dead. He left her to chase after the source of an ancient Japanese myth seven years ago and hasn’t been heard from since. Lara still holds out hope that her dad is alive, and when she discovers a clue in his last will and testament that leads her to his Croft Cave, the hunt is on.

Vikander makes for an appealing protagonist for this sort of film. She’s earnest, tenacious and smart, and it’s totally believable that her Croft is up to the challenge. The movie establishes fairly early on through an extended (almost too extended) bike chase, and a later encounter with some thieves, that Croft has both the physical and mental resources to face and overcome the threats that lay ahead of her.

Vikander makes for an appealing protagonist for this sort of film. She’s earnest, tenacious and smart

Once Lara has followed her father’s clues, she sets off on her quest to find out what became of him. She traces his path to Hong Kong, where Lara enlists the aid of a drunken ship captain named Lu Ren (Daniel Wu, Europa Report). Lu Ren’s father helped Lara’s father on Richard Croft’s last, fateful voyage and is also missing, so Lu Ren finds he has a stake in finding out what happened as well. Together, the two of them set sail into the Devil’s Sea, searching for the mysterious, uninhabited island where their parents disappeared.

It’s quickly discovered, however, that the island is not as uninhabited as Lara was led to believe. A small army of mercenary soldiers, led by the ruthless Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight) is on the island, searching for the same ancient tomb as Lara’s dad. Vogel wants nothing more than to find the tomb, deliver its contents to his mysterious employer, and get back home to his family.  If he has to enslave dozens of people to do that, well that’s just too bad isn’t it.

Goggins’s bad guy isn’t all that compelling. I liked that his motivation is to just get the job done so he can go home, he doesn’t want to take over the world himself. Given the over-the-top nature of adventure movies like Tomb Raider, however, Vogel gets a little lost in the shuffle of ancient curses, death traps and derring-do. The (probably mostly digital) scenery on the island looked delicious. The movie should’ve let him chew it a little more.

It’s a tense action sequence that keeps upping the stakes and layering on more danger

Anyway, Lara manages to escape her captors, leading to what was perhaps my favorite sequence in the film. On the run from gun-toting mercenaries, with her hands tied, she falls into a raging river and is swept towards a waterfall and certain death. She manages to save herself with a conveniently crashed WWII bomber, but finds she’s not out of danger yet. The old, rusted bomber begins breaking apart with her inside and she has to free herself from her bonds and get out of the plane before it collapses down the falls. It’s a tense action sequence that keeps upping the stakes and layering on more danger. It was no doubt inspired in part by a similar sequence in Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World.

The second half, an extended dungeon crawl through the island’s tomb, is a little draggy. There’s a great sequence that involves crossing a chasm on a shaky ladder that’s sure to give acrophobics the fits, but otherwise none of the traps or action sequences were all that inspired. Still, the production design of the tomb looked great. Its chambers and passageways were all appropriately dark and musty. You could practically hear the Dungeon Master making random encounter checks throughout.

Lara resembled her video-game counterpart a little too closely in some sequences. This wasn’t the worst case of digital stuntmen I’ve seen, but it always takes me out of the movie a little when I notice it. The cost benefits for continuing with using that technology make a lot of sense, but you have to be careful with it, lest it becomes too distracting.

Overall, the film is a great deal of fun. Nick Frost has a great (uncredited) cameo as a pawn shop owner, and Derek Jacobi and Kristin Scott Thomas show up in supporting roles as well. I’ll look forward to seeing them all return in the sequel.

Of course there’s going to be a sequel. The end of Tomb Raider heavily implies one (no, scratch that- it’s not implying anything). It’ll be interesting to see this Lara Croft having grown into the character we’ve come to know from the games. She has a shadowy organization to fight and more tombs to raid. Maybe she’ll also get another woman to join her on her adventures as well.