Tomb Raider (2018) and the Thing about Adaptations

Tl;dr Go see it, it’s worth it, though it could have been better.

This review shouldn’t be too spoilery–you should be safe, but there is one big spoiler you should look out for near the end of this review. It’s marked. You’ve been warned.

The thing about adaptations is that they’re not the same as what they’re adapting. That sounds facile, and it is, but what I really mean is that adaptations are an entirely different story that bears some degree of similarity to the characters, situations, or themes of the original. It is, and should be, fundamentally a different experience.

How *true* or close an adaptation is to the source material isn’t the best measure of its quality, in my opinion. When I go into an adaptation, be it a Marvel movie, Game of Thrones, or, in this case, Tomb Raider, I don’t necessarily expect to get the same experience the original gave me.

Tomb Raider (2018, starring Alicia Vikander, who is excellent in the role, her English accent is great, she deserves every bit of that academy award she has, fight me) is an adaptation of a 20 year old franchise, from the first polygonal snarky English Lady Indiana Jones games through a complicated and at times nonsensical morass of games through to the gritty and Uncharted-esque rebooted origin story 2013 Tomb Raider and its 2015 sequel Rise of the Tomb Raider, which are fantastic games. And not coincidentally, Square Enix has recently (like two days ago) announced a third in the reboot trilogy called Shadow of the Tomb Raider (October? 2018, I’m gonna buy it immediately). And in those games, Lara varies so much it’s hard to come up with a really coherent version to base Vikander’s fantastic portrayal on, unless you pick one.

Naturally, it is the 2013 Lara this movie brings to life (though again, this is a fundamentally different Lara, since it’s an adaptation). And while I wouldn’t have minded an entire Tomb Raider movie franchise starring Camilla Luddington (voice and motion capture actor for the games and the wonderful Dr. Jo Wilson on Grey’s Anatomy, totally a great show, fight me again), it’s obvious that was the right choice and Vikander an excellent choice for the role. She is in incredible shape for the film, too, and that makes her stunt scenes very believable.

But how much does this movie owe to that fantastic game?

Well, not as much as it probably should have, really.

Sure, they share some of the same settings (the cursed Devil Sea, Yamatai island, tomb of Himiko, witch queen of Japan), same characters (Lara herself, the sinister villain Matthias played with verve and genuine menace by Walton Goggins, even Ana Miller played by Kirsten Scott Thomas, though she doesn’t actually show up until RISE), and a couple of the same themes/plot points (Lara becoming a treasure hunter, following up on her dad’s research, the treacherous sea voyage resulting in a crash and sunken ship, the airplane and parachute sequence, even a nod to the beginning of the game where she’s evading an islander crawling through small spaces to get her), the variances are significant.

In the game, Lara is a university student looking for a massive discovery, partly in support of her BFF Sam(antha) Nishimura (a young documentarian), with a while carefully sculpted crew of diverse and interesting characters, including the big and big-hearted Pacific Islander Jonah Maiava, the distrustful badass Nadine-Ross-a-couple-years-early Joslyn Reyes, and a couple father figures from her past, including Conrad and Angus, both of them tough guy adventurer types. They all crash and get separated, and Lara spends most of the game trying to survive the island’s insane inhabitants (part of a cult led by Matthias) and rescue her friends, particularly Sam, who Matthias plans to instill with the destructive soul of Himiko. There’s all kinds of hard choices and uncertainty about who to trust and what to do, and Lara keeps getting out of scrapes by the skin of her teeth and with healthy dollops of PTSD from the horrific things she sometimes has to do to survive. Oh, and zombie samurai. Anyway, the game is about summoning the grit and determination to fight, run, and survive by any means necessary. And it’s about the unbreakable bond between Lara and Sam–about these two characters who are essentially in the purest platonic love.

The movie, on the other hand, is a about 3/4 a streamlined version of that, with a lot of the “extraneous” stuff excised, to put in, uh, more extraneous stuff? Like an extended sequence where Lara is a bike courier on a merry chase through London that lands her at the police station? Flirting with her boss? Though the pawn shop scene was pretty hilarious.

We get it–she’s a bit rebellious and lost. Did we really need twenty minutes to establish that?

That’s the weird thing about this movie–it takes about 45 minutes to show us Lara figuring out she should go to the island to pursue the truth about her father, father a crew of one (Lu Ren, drunken boat captain/action hero played with charm by Daniel Wu, love that guy). It lacks efficiency. It’s a series of slow scenes showing us Lara is lost and uncertain of her way in life–something the game showed us in about a two minute opener and throughout the story. When the movie gets to the island, it abbreviated the, say, 2-4 days of the game into about a 12 hour time period told over 60ish minutes. We could have used more time on the island and less set up. The movie was a bit top heavy in that regard.

(Insert standard Tomb Raider top heavy joke here. Hahaha. Glad we’ve all got that out of our system.)

All the setup runtime could have been used to introduce Sam, at least, as a character, but that’s not where the movie goes. In fact, the female voice is largely chopped out of this movie, other than Lara herself. In the game, she has a community of women (Sam, Reyes, even Anna) who are relevant to her story. You know, the way women in real life do? That’s an easy mistake Hollywood makes in handling female heroes–treating them as isolated creatures.

The movie even headfakes this at the beginning, where Lara is fighting Lisbeth Salander look/fight-alike Rose (at least that’s who I think that is, Annabel Elizabeth Wood’s character) at her MMA gym, which at least explains Lara’s fighting skills. And the movie technically passes the Bechdel test by having Lara talk to her friend Sophie (Hannah John-Kamen’s character? Hard to say, because I don’t recall Lara naming her) about the sparring match. But then those two characters disappear, never to be seen again, and Lara sails off into the Devil’s Sea with one guy of questionable motives, and it’s basically all dudes from there on, plus one long dead woman (Himiko).

And this is my biggest criticism of the movie: I feel like they inject as much testosterone into Lara’s story as possible, and not really for good reasons.

Was the movie written by explicitly sexist dudes? Maybe. But it certainly loses the implicit feminism of Lara Croft, especially the recent reboot games.

Why couldn’t either of those women at the beginning been Sam, and then Lara had the ADDED motivation of rescuing her? Sure, it’s the damsel in distress thing, but it takes on extra depth the existing story could use.

Also: Vikander’s Lara is rarely given the opportunity to be vulnerable, the way Sam’s inclusion would have done for her. There’s one scene where she had to decide between attack or standing down to save someone important to her, but that’s it. There isn’t the sense of dread and helplessness about rescuing Sam, and thus there isn’t the will to push through it. And Lara isn’t brainy the way she is in the games, which I think further undermines her as a character. Clever, yes, but not academic. No language skills, except when the plot requires it. All the menfolk around her can be relied on to have the answers, though. :/

Next, and here’s that big spoiler I warned you about:

SPOILER

No seriously. Major spoiler for the movie.

SPOILER

Lara finds her father, Lord Richard Craft (Dominic West) on the island. Who has improbably survived seven years alone and whose mental health has quite reasonably deteriorated with all that isolation. Now, he makes a good character, and he hits some of the same beats as Roth in the 2013 game, including mentoring Lara and sacrificing himself to protect her, but I feel like his presence and story undermines hers a bit.

Not to mention suddenly all our story beats are about men doing manly things, like trying to discover a weaponizable magic plague, sacrifice themselves for their daughters, or shoot a bunch of dudes with machine guns (apparently). And that’s not really what Tomb Raider is about–it’s supposed to be about Lara. About her wit and ingenuity and grit and determination. Her heroism. It’s her story.

Much as I like Dominic West, I can’t help feeling that was an unnecessary misstep. I’d have taken Sam and/or Roth in that narrative role before Lara’s dad in a heartbeat.

SPOILERS END

(you’re safe again)

Anyway.

It wasn’t the movie I wanted, exactly, but I really enjoyed the movie for what it was, and I would heartily recommend it as an action film with a pretty awesome female lead.

Depending on where your fandom is placed along the timeline, this may or may not be your Lara. She very quickly becomes the badass we fans know and love, and she’s pretty darn good with that bow.

I will gladly go see a sequel. And watching this movie enriched my love of the 2013 game, which I would go back and replay if I didn’t have all this writing to do and Persona 3 to finish.

Review verdict: I give it 3 stealth takedowns out of 5, but the unpleasant kind where you wrap your bow around the enemy’s neck and choke them out, then snap their neck once they’re unconscious, *Jesus* Lara

A couple other random notes:

1. Unlike Angelina Jolie, Vikander’s Lara never actually fires a gun, or even holds one until a mid-credits stinger, which is mostly there as fan service. Not that the pistol was a great weapon in the games anyway, but it’s an ironic Tomb Raider thing.

2. The 2013 TR game also includes roughly 500 more falls off things, slides, tumbles, grisly death animations, and vicious slayings by a budding young mass murderer, but the movie does show Lara having a really tough time of it (the impaled midsection, falling through the trees, getting really freaked out having to kill a dude, being dragged down the river, falling into the raging sea, leaping across a chasm to belay herself with a red climbing axe) so it’s a mixed bag.

3. Three cheers for Nick Frost. 🙂

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2 thoughts on “Tomb Raider (2018) and the Thing about Adaptations

  1. As someone who doesn’t play video games and only has a cursory knowledge of who Lara Croft is (I think I saw the Jolie movie in 2001–that makes me feel old), do you think I would get as much enjoyment from it as your average Tomb Raider fan?

    Like

    • Quite possibly. If you don’t know much about the subject material, it’ll be just an action movie starring a female Indiana Jones who falls down a lot. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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