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‘Tomb Raider’ Clears Low Bars, Impresses No One

March 14, 2018

It must be some kind of fete that Roar Uthaug’s “Tomb Raider” manages to defy expectations while being utterly disappointing at the same time. It’s a talent, definitely, just one that nobody wants.

“Tomb Raider” is an adaptation of the video game franchise of the same name, in which an adventurous explorer named Lara Croft climbs, crawls and spelunks her way through mystical tombs, all the while battling enemy explorers hoping to exploit her discoveries.

The film owes more to 2013’s “Tomb Raider” and 2015’s “Rise of the Tomb Raider” than the 90’s games. Like in the newer games, Lara Croft utilizes bows and survivalist skills rather than guns akimbo, as in the classic games, or the Angelina Jolie films that adapted them.

Like the Lara Croft of the 2013 video game, this Lara wears cargo pants (not skimpy shorts), fights with her Katniss Everdeen-style archery skills, and isn’t a stone cold assassin, but a determined survivor and a scrappy fighter.

Alicia Vikander plays the titular raider of tombs as spunky and resourceful. She’s a charismatic and likable presence, if a little typical. Watching her leap over great distances, balance precariously on crumbling architecture, and brawl desperately in the muck with men twice her size is where the film shines.

The film has some dazzling vistas, cool shots, and some pulse pounding action, which distracts from the drab nature of some of the sets (particularly the tomb). It surpasses the expectations set by some of the most awful video game adaptations to come down the pipe over the years by having legitimate tension and just a touch of artistry.

“Tomb Raider” succeeds when the audience’s heart races: watching Lara struggle to survive. It fails when the audience grows bored and listless, as it often will given the mediocre quality of the script. The foreshadowing is too obvious, the themes too typical, the characters too thinly drawn.

Lara herself is emblematic of the script’s problems. Her primary motivation is reuniting with her father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), who went missing seven years before the film begins. In scriptwriting there’s a concept known as “want versus need.” Lara “wants” to reunite with her father, but “needs” to accept his death, for example.

Where the film fails is that Lara’s want is justified and fulfilled by act three, meaning that Lara doesn’t really need to grow, change, or learn anything. That the film uses its last fifteen minutes to force Lara to accept the truth it should have been building up to all along does nothing to assuage the unfocused and unsatisfying nature of the conflict and the themes.

The film constantly fumbles its opportunities. Lara encounters a ship captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose father aided her own in the quest that led to both of their disappearances. The film has the tools to create an interesting parallel in how Lu deals with his missing father (drinking) versus how Lara deals with it (denial). The movie does nothing with this.

The film takes the time to draw another parallel between the antagonist, Mattias Vogel (Walton Goggins), and Lara’s father, but does nothing with it.

There’s a scene where Lara is forced to drown a man, her first kill, and is clearly shaken and disturbed by the ordeal. And then she gets distracted by something else and all thoughts of moral quandary or growing to accept the need to kill are discarded.

The dialogue is as cliche as it gets. At one point, while a ship is capsizing, Lu Ren the ship captain says exactly what a ship captain in the most boring paint by numbers movie would say. “This ship is going down!” he says. “We have to get off this ship!” he says. “This isn’t good!” he says.

The dialogue is the most strikingly boring part of the movie. Lara frequently flashes back to her father, and the memorable words he always told her. “Dad loves you,” he says, seven years ago before he disappeared. And in their final meeting before his true death he says it again: “Dad loves you.” Wow.

And someone in the audience chuckles, because what else can one do when they literally hear the sound of the screenwriter phoning it in?

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