Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, May 30, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: Tomb Raider (2018)

I tend to think of the “Tomb Raider” franchise as a relic of the nineties, an artifact of the PlayStation 1/Surge Soda era. However, it apparently continues to be a viable brand. The game series was successfully rebooted in 2006 with “Tomb Raider Legend.” During the mid-2000s, there was brief chatter about producing a third “Tomb Raider” film with Megan Fox, during her brief reign as America's top sex symbol, filling Angelina Jolie's padded bra. Following another successful reboot of the game series in 2013, the effort to produce a new Lara Croft movie was re-energized. 2018's “Tomb Raider” would see Alicia Vikander and her totally normal sized breasts assuming the Croft mantle and Scandinavian filmmaker Roar Uthaung, previously of “Cold Prey” and “The Wave,” behind the camera.

As with the game that inspired it, this “Tomb Raider” is a complete reboot. The most consistent factors are Lara's olive tank top and her vanished dad. This time, the senior Croft disappeared in the Devil's Sea while searching for Himiko, the legendary first queen of Japan that held the secrets to life and death. When asked to officially declare him dead, Lara discovers her dad's notes on the subject. She heads to Hong Kong, hires a boat captain, and is subsequently tossed in a massive storm. She wakes up on the remote island of Yamatai, where a villain named Matthias Vogel is using slave-labor to dig up Himiko's tomb. Croft must escape her captors, discover whether her father is dead or alive, and uncover the truth about Himiko.

While Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft was nothing more than a collection of hilariously dated attempts at coolness, Vikander's Lara is a result of the new teen's obsession with grittiness, realism, and origin stories. Compared to the cartoon character Jolie played, Vikaner's Croft is very human. 2018's Lara has refused to accept her father's vast wealth, working as a courier in London, which makes her more relatable. She's introduced being choked out inside a boxing ring. That sets up our new Lara getting hurt. A lot. She's tossed to the ground and through the air more times than can be counted. She's tied up by the bad guys and stabbed through the belly with a tree branch. Lara emerges as a hero not because she's ridiculously skilled and has limitless resources but because she constantly gets the shit kicked out of her and never gives up. It makes for a more compelling heroine, at the very least.

The action sequences in this “Tomb Raider” are also less cartoonish. Uthaung orchestrates a number of exciting scenes. The highlight of the film is Lara's escape from the slavers. She runs through the jungle, arms bound, avoiding gunfire. She leaps into a river and gets knocked around, the camera intimately watching her struggle. She pulls herself into a long-wrecked fighter jet at the edge of a waterfall. The scene isn't done escalating, as the derelict jet starts to teeter over the falls. Lara is tossed around more, dangling onto dear life, before riding a torn parachute out of the collapsing plane. It's a fantastically tense sequence that never lets up, building in even bigger directions but keeping its point-of-view on Lara. The audience is dragged along on this bracing journey.

It's also the highlight of the movie. There are other decent action scenes in “Tomb Raider.” A fight scene with a goon in the muddy dark is solid. The way the reboot puts a realistic spin on the fantastical MacGuffins we are used to seeing Lara chase is pretty clever. However, Uthaung's film still can't overcome its video game roots. Many of the action scenes feel too much like the quick time events that featured prominently in the new games. Such as Lara climbing across the edge of a sinking ship like it's monkey bars. Or her foot chase through the Hong Kong docks concluding with her swinging on a random hook. The film's roots as a video game are most apparent in its awkward last act. After uncovering Himiko's tomb and getting down to some raiding, Lara and company have to navigate a series of increasingly goofy puzzles. The scene where she tries to open a door with a number of colored keys, as the floor disappears under her, really makes me feel like I should be holding a controller.

Seemingly every British waif in Hollywood, and pitch perfect choices like Rhona Mitra and Gemma Arterton, were considered to be the new Lara. Instead, “Tomb Raider” would become Alicia Vikander's mandatory post-Oscar win grab at action movie stardom. All joking aside, Vikander does just fine. Her athleticism is impressive. She shows the character's steely determination while remaining charming. Walter Goggins appears as Vogel. It's odd that an actor as wildly talented at going over-the-top as Goggins would be chosen to play a ridiculous baddie like this. Vogel is pragmatic and almost sympathetic, being manipulated by a more nefarious force. Daniel Wu is a decent foil for Croft, as her male companion on this adventure, while Dominic Cooper gets to ham it up a little as her dad.

“Tomb Raider” looses a lot of momentum in its second half. Once the actual tomb raiding begins, it starts to rely more on CGI, traditional action movie theatrics, and silly plot devices. Up until that point, the film was a competently directed action/thriller that successfully brought an outrageous character down to Earth. It seemed to me that “Tomb Raider” came and went from theaters without much attention. Worldwide, it managed to make a profit – 274 million against a 94 million budget – so now talks have begun of doing a sequel. (The film leaves room for one, as the villains behind Vogel – a mysterious organization called Trinity – are still out there.) Even though 2018's “Tomb Raider” is a notable improvement over the earlier films, it still doesn't totally work. Whether a sequel will actually be worth seeing or not is still up in the air. [6/10]

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