The new Tomb Raider movie is out today, and it certainly was a movie about raiding a tomb. Heather Alexandra and I sat down to chat about the good, the bad, but mostly the very bland.
Gita Jackson: Hi Heather! Last night we saw Tomb Raider. That Lara sure raided a tomb, didn’t she?
Heather Alexandra: She raided at least one very large tomb.
Gita: I don’t know that I actively dislike this movie. I also did not actively like it. You had a more negative reaction, at least initially.
Heather: Right. It’s good to get that off our chests right away. Tomb Raider isn’t necessarily a bad movie. There’s some tense action set pieces, and Alicia Vikander’s take on Lara Croft is pretty good. For me, the problem is that it felt too generic. Plot points were rushed, and I never got to really care about the characters. It’s a fine popcorn munching movie, though!
Gita: I don’t think that I would willingly put this movie on again, but if it were on television while I was folding laundry, I would maybe continue to watch it. Unfortunately, at no point does a single character say “Yer a Croft, Lara!”
Heather: A huge disappointment considering how much of this movie is about Lara and her father. Let’s recap for folks who might not be in the know: Tomb Raider is mostly about Lara searching for what happened to her missing pops. She ends up on an island called Yamatai where a nefarious group of mercenaries are looking for the tomb of a freak death goddess called Himiko. Hilarity ensues.
Gita: One short note about Himiko and Yamatai—Himiko was an actual shaman queen who shows up in some ancient Chinese texts about ancient Japan who ruled over a place called Yamatai. So far so good. However, Tomb Raider cites her as “the first empress of Japan” who dealt “death and destruction wherever she went” and was imprisoned by her own army. All of that stuff is made up! Also, in this movie, Yamatai is an island out in the middle of nowhere, whereas in real life no one really know where Yamatai was, but the two locations people assume it to be are just islands of Japan. These legends obviously don’t have to be historically accurate—this is a movie about tomb raidin’—but, uh, maybe they should have thought about this just a smidge more.
Heather: That ties into something we talked about last night. While the movie manages to hit some key beats from the games—a tumble down river rapids, a muddy and horrible fight against a guard—it doesn’t really get into the actual tomb raiding until much later. When it does, Lara mostly solves puzzles without ever letting the audience in on it.
Gita: I really liked that she didn’t solve puzzles on screen. There is nothing more boring than watching someone dictate the steps of a puzzle slowly and loudly. Like, have you ever seen a Saw movie? Later, when Lara does actually do a puzzle and tell us all the steps, it was tedious and boring.
Heather: Indiana Jones this is not.
Gita: By far the most interesting parts of this movie were watching Lara physically struggle or emotionally struggle. There’s a lot of the former and not a lot of the latter.
Heather: While I don’t know if I care about Lara Croft the reckless pseudo-gajillionaire, I did at least feel a little for Lara Croft the tough girl in way over her head. It’s not much, but the movie does sneak in some moments for her to really grow.
Gita: Very soon after Lara ventures to the island of Yamatai, she gets kidnapped and then basically does the whole “falling down a river sequence” from the first game of the rebooted franchise. She really gets the shit beaten out of her by nature here. She almost falls off a cliff and gets partially impaled by a stick—it’s bad. Just when you think it can’t get worse, a man tries to kill her. She ends up winning this fight by drowning him in a shallow pool. What I really liked about that sequence is that of all the things that happened to her, you can really see the exhaustion and pain on her face after she murders someone. Very few movies like this reflect for even a moment on what a person goes through when they realize they’ve killed someone. Unfortunately that moment of reflection is incredibly short-lived because she sees her not-dead-after-all dad in the distance.
Heather: That fight scene’s probably the best moment in the movie. Vikander really sells the physicality of it all. It never gets quite into the “boy, we love punching this girl” weirdness of the games. It’s a quick beat but it works really well.
Gita: I didn’t really expect Vikander to sell taking a punch as well as she does, but she’s great at it. I’d watch her in another action movie in a heartbeat. Just maybe not this one.
Heather: Yeah, they definitely nailed the casting for Lara. Everyone else? Not so much. I always associate Walton Goggins with yokel henchmen types, so I didn’t quite buy him as a villain. While I liked Dominic West, the whole Benn Gunn routine felt a bit forced.
Gita: Neither Vikander or West really sold the father/daughter relationship for me. They tried really hard, but I felt like it just wasn’t that deep.
Heather: Gita, they had a sort of secret hand gesture. If that’s not grounds for a strong father/daughter relationship, I don’t know what is.
Gita: Oh my god, you know what that reminded me of? Face/Off.
Heather: A movie with many people using two guns at once! In Tomb Raider, Lara doesn’t do that until the end. Which was a nice nod because it felt a bit more like Angelina Jolie for a second.
Gita: You saw the Angelina Jolie movie, right? What’s that like?
Heather: There are a fair amount of similarities. There’s a relationship with her dad, a secret organization—the Illuminati in those movies. But there’s a bit more globe trotting and sillier action.
Gita: Yeah, this movie is mostly confined to the one place. The structure of it feels less like an Indiana Jones movie than a movie version of a video game that is modeled after Indiana Jones, which is actually just what it is. Every new set piece looked like a new level to play. It’s like an advertisement for an Uncharted game.
Heather: It definitely moves from one defined thing to another. The gunfight level, the climbing set piece, the tomb.
Gita: When Lara is on the boat to Yamatai, she reads her dad’s diary and hears his voice in voiceover telling her that in order to make it to the tomb of Himiko she must complete some trials. She must survive the chasm of souls, pray to survive the faces of Himiko and face her army of a thousand handmaidens. It was like “Here’s a level of a video game, and here’s another level and here’s another level.”
Heather: The script definitely feels like it was chasing after video games a bit too much, although it does manage to hold back a bit once we get into the tomb. I wanted undead skeletons, Gita! All we got were sort of zombies.
Gita: God okay, this super bothered me. So the above stuff that I mentioned? Lara, her dad and the guy from the evil organization all survive that. Worth noting that the faces of Himiko thing is the puzzle she has to solve on screen, which requires Alicia Vikander to dramatically say the word “Green!” Just awful. Anyway, they make it to the tomb, they raid it, and discover it’s not magical. There aren’t any zombies; Himiko was a carrier for an infectious disease. Nothing mystical in this movie, y’all! Except this disease is not fundamentally any different from magic. It’s a still active virus that necrotizes tissue and presents rabies-esque symptoms but is somehow only communicable through touch. And progression of the disease can be temporarily halted by use of a tourniquet. Tell me how that isn’t just magic!
Heather: Uh... science. You’re right, though. They make a big fuss about magic or reality, about Lara’s dad becoming obsessed with the afterlife and searching for proof of the supernatural, and it really just boils down to smallpox.
Gita: Just let it be magic. So many unlikely things have happened to Lara at this point—we can have some zombies.
Heather: I think this movie struggles a lot to know what it wants to be. When it does hit those tough character beats it’s pretty rad, but otherwise it feels a bit like it moves from one thing to another without much consequence or concern. I mean, we’ve not even talked about Lu Ren for instance. He’s just...there. The corpse disease is just...there. The secret Trinity organization is just...there. It never comes together.
Gita: Daniel Wu is fantastic as Lu Ren, and he doesn’t really get a lot to do. I looked him up after the movie and apparently this guy is a Chinese action star who currently stars in a martial arts show in the US. Seems like kind of missed opportunity, especially given how charismatic he was on screen.
Heather: Yeah, it’s a bummer. I liked him but they don’t really build up the bond between him and Lara besides a a little bit of flirting. He does, however, do something you thought was wonderful during the gunfight.
Gita: Oh right! In the most video game-y of video game moves, during a gunfight in the midpoint of the movie, he shoots an exploding barrel to incapacitate an enemy from a distance. Nice use of your environment, my dude!
Heather: Alas, I don’t think we’re going to get a Lu Ren movie. I’m not even sure we’ll get another Tomb Raider. Our audience seemed split between getting into it and laughing at it. That’s fine, it’s cool to laugh at a corny movie, but I definitely walked away shaking my head. I did get to have nachos and chill with a friend though, so if folks need an excuse to do that, Tomb Raider might be a good choice.
Gita: There are worse excuses to hang with a friend or background noise for laundry folding, that’s for sure.