Second chances are a dime a dozen in the entertainment industry. What didn't work the first time -- or, what worked very well, but then tapered off -- frequently gets a new opportunity for a fresh start. That creative cycle is perfectly personified by the Tomb Raider IP, which launched as a video game for the PlayStation in 1996, triggered numerous video game sequels, inspired a silver-screen adaptation (starring Angelina Jolie) which ALSO got a sequel, was rebooted in 2013 as a reintroduction to young Lara Croft, and now sees that series getting a movie version starring Alicia Vikander in the role.
That's a lot of tombs, and a whole lot of raiding. Your interest in this latest endeavor may vary depending on how many hours you've logged following Lara Croft on her various adventures, and how much leniency you grant the franchise. Because where my generation was blessed with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, this film strikes me more as Lara Croft and the Temple of Dumb.
Director Roar Uthaug (The Wave) treats Tomb Raider as Batman Begins for Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), introducing our eventual adventurer as a scrappy London bike messenger who hasn't yet accepted her destiny as a global expeditioner, and seeker of antique treasures. Which is a fine approach, and one that works as we establish Lara's environment. The script tells us that Lara's a thrill-seeker (she kickboxes another female fighter and participates in an elaborate bike chase around London, all in the first 15 minutes of the film), though she's compensating for the mysterious disappearance of her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who one day left on a business trip and told young Lara, "I'll be back before you know I'm gone." Seven years later, Richard's still missing, and Lara won't accept that he might be dead.
That's smart, because clues begin to surface that Lord Richard was on to something bigger. His work surrounded the ancient burial of Himiko, a mythical queen who reportedly possessed supernatural powers. Richard tracked Himiko to the middle of the Devil's Sea. Now his daughter, desperate to prove her father might still be alive, follows his trail, finding danger and death-defying obstacles along the way.
Tomb Raider is a faithful adaptation of the 2013 video game reboot, which itself was the tenth title in the ongoing gaming series. Alicia Vikander is a prim and polished Lara, owning the physicality of the role while also deftly recreating, sometimes beat for beat, the action maneuvers from the game. A suitable subtitle for the film easily could have been Tomb Raider: How Many Different Ways Can We Physically Torture Alicia Vikander, for the actress takes a beating on this adventure. I wanted to wave the white flag on her behalf nearly 30 minutes before the end credits rolled.
And yet, for all of its dedication to breathing life into the game, the movie Tomb Raider doesn't establish its own sense of adventure, or dial into a genuine rush or tingle that comes with watching an action movie. The film competently restages sequences from the game, yet the set pieces -- aside from one memorable progression involving an airplane and a waterfall -- lack invention. Watching Tomb Raider also convinced me that the planned Uncharted movie probably should be shelved, for I see it facing a number of similar obstacles. Archaeological puzzles, which are fun to crack when you are controlling Lara Croft in the game, are chaotic and silly when translated to the screen. And while I can't fully critique the movie without ruining what Lara finds on the central island of the movie, I will just say that the mystery of Himiko and the threat that she presents, is comically bad, and the movie's third act -- even with the aid of wonderful character actor Walton Goggins -- cannot recover from the ludicrous twists that occur in Himiko's tomb.
How ironic that real-life couple Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender unleashed dueling video game properties into the world (his was 2016's misfire, Assassin's Creed), and both ended up being marginally competent but ultimately muddled action thrillers that mishandled their game's central mythology and failed to launch a franchise -- even though launching a franchise was clearly the goal of both films. When it comes to movies adapted from video games, the argument always boils down to this, "Is it more fun to actually play the adventure, or is it more fun to sit in a theater and watch the game be played for you?" Tomb Raider, like so many films to come before it, casts a vote in the Play It column.