You would never know it from the movies, but the Tomb Raider video games have, for the most part, offered a quiet, even thoughtful experience. For 20 years following its 1996 debut, the series centered on patient exploration and puzzle-solving, with players guiding a posh bombshell through lavishly expansive caves and lost temples. Sometimes lonely, sometimes soothing, often comically frustrating, Tomb Raider was something like Myst as re-imagined by Russ Meyer after marathoning the Indiana Jones movies. Sure, the hero, Lara Croft, once in a while had to machine-gun a T. rex, and she had a bad habit of vaulting off to her death in directions you didn’t intend for her to leap, but her existence tended toward the solitary: She wandered forgotten labyrinths forever in search of the next ancient lever to pull. You could idle there, on a precipice, and rotate the camera around her, taking in the world.
The movies, by contrast, have shied away from quiet, solitude or exploration. In theaters, Lara Croft is always running and fighting and explaining to her companions or enemies how putting this doohickey there will open this 1,000-year-old stone door. They pulse along with the metabolism of action films rather than exploration games. You barely get to see the tombs that she’s raiding, much less find a moment to work through the puzzles. One reason that Raiders of the Lost Ark or Alien or The Fellowship of the Ring have proven more thrilling than their sequels is that in each, the filmmakers took the time to allow us truly to discover the treasure cave, the mystery spacecraft and the deathtrap mine. We’re there right along with the characters, inching step by step into richly detailed, fully convincing environments.
That commitment to immersiveness has always been rare in Hollywood’s adventure films, though not necessarily rare in Hollywood – horror, with its haunted basements, often depends on it. But movies like Tomb Raider, so eager to hustle us to the next story beat or action flourish, deny us the opportunity to dream along with them, to imagine that we could actually be there, raiding the damn tomb. Just over halfway through the 2018 edition, directed by Roar Uthaug, our skeptical Lara Croft (a marvelous Alicia Vikander) at last plunges with a squad of villains and her own father into the usual under-mountain hellmouth. What follows is like an old pop star’s greatest hits medley, where you get just listless scraps of what you paid to see: a quick rappel trip down, an insert shot of a skull with a hole in it, a pressure-plate spike trap, an unleapable chasm, a floor that falls away.
Uthaug smash-cuts from one peril to the next, the explorers never seeming to move from chamber to chamber. We keep joining them, the exploration already in progress. Lara solves a brain-teaser to open the doors to this tomb, but the movie doesn’t involve us in her thinking or show us why she turns the knobs and dials she turns. She’s just good at puzzles — letting us think it through with her would only slow down the thrill ride. Then when we are privy to her problem solving, in a sequence involving colored prayer wheels and holes in a door, the film is too quick cut in its editing, too shouty in its dialogue, for us to play along.
Still, this is a better Tomb Raider than Angelina Jolie starred in, though Jolie’s first did have a sequence in which her Lara trains in Croft Manor’s tomb-simulation chamber and then executes many flawless backflips while battling a giant robot. Uthaug’s film, like the recent reboot of the video-game series, gives us a grittier Lara Croft, one stripped of the advantages of her wealth and all bruised up from the rigors of her adventure. So: no T. rexes, no robots. The recent games have, like the adventure movies they rip off, come to prize killing over exploring. This Tomb Raider, to its credit, doesn’t drench its Lara Croft in blood. In fact, it emphasizes that killing is brutal, miserable work. Vikander makes clear, as her Lara strangle-drowns a henchman in a mud puddle, that the act of killing has hardened and traumatized this young woman.
The film starts out promisingly, with some witty sequences set in London, where Lara — not yet a tomb raider — takes MMA classes and works as a bike courier. The first words spoken to her come from a man telling her she’s going to fail; her first two big action set pieces involve chases through cities, the first a bicycle race in London and the second a junk-to-junk spree in the harbor of Hong Kong. Both are strong and seem even stronger compared to what comes later: As in a Tomb Raider game, you have a breath to survey her surroundings and consider her next move. A set piece in a rust bucket plane perched over a waterfall — there’s always a waterfall — also delights in its one-thing-after-another cartoon logic. But the best sequence is the quietest, when Lara infiltrates the camp of the movie’s Bad Dude With a Plan (Walton Goggins, for once not playing a racist galoot). In one, long, fluid shot, she picks her way through tents and trees, avoiding guards and Goggins. In real time, we see her study and respond to the situation around her.
Then, of course, she’s obliged to enter the caves, and the move loses its flavor. There’s not a joke between the start of the second hour and the leave-’em-smiling end credits sequences. Rather than thrill, the climax gets bogged down in paternal drama, a la Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. What is it about tomb raiding that reconciles fathers and siblings?
Still, I admire the seriousness with which everyone involved treats these characters, and the smart ways that the script (from Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons) on several occasions dashes expectations to the rocks. I have hopes for a sequel. Vikander is a first-rate action star, her abs and jawline and running form as sharp as mid-career Tom Cruise’s. In fact, she could be the human Tom Cruise. Her eyes express everything a relatable hero’s should express: quiet confidence, then raw fear, then I pulled that off!, then what now?, then I got this. She’s the second Oscar winner to play the role, but the first not to look as if she thought the whole thing was kind of dumb. She invests herself in Lara Croft, and the filmmakers, unlike the ones Jolie got saddled with, frame her with awe rather than lust. Now if only they could bring some of that awe to the tombs …