Raiders of the Lost Ark perfected a formula for swashbuckling archaeological adventure that video games like Uncharted and the Tomb Raider video games successfully replicated. A roguish hero races an evil organization to collect a supernatural treasure. In the third act, the myths and legends turn out to be real and the adventurers have to deal with zombies, yetis, aliens, cultists, or immortal villagers.
Tomb Raider, the new movie starring Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft and in theaters now, messed with the formula. Like the rebooted game that inspired it, this new version of Croft and her story is less campy and more realistic than both the ridiculous Angelina Jolie movies and the original games. The new movie is more believable but far less fun. It ditches the supernatural element that helps make swashbucklers work and becomes a generic action movie.
Borrowing heavily from the 2013 video game reboot, the new film follows Croft as she investigates rumors of an ancient curse on the island of Yamatai in the South Pacific. When she gets to the island, she discovers villainous Mathias Vogel—played by the delightful Walton Goggins— leading the shadowy Trinity conspiracy to uncover the island’s secrets. The island is the resting place of the legendary Himiko—a powerful queen who legend says kills with a touch.
Tomb Raider is fine. Vikander is good as Croft. She’s embodies her restless and reckless spirit but ditches her naive, do-gooder vibe from the game. The plot remains mostly the same as the game until the end, with a few tweaks that make it work better on the big screen. In the film, Croft goes to Yamatai chasing after her missing father while in the game she’s stranded there with a research group. Between Goggins’ Vogel, Vikander's Croft, and the competent direction, Tomb Raider might have even been good. But it couldn’t stick the landing.
Spoilers ahead from some elements of the movie’s third act.
Unlike the game it's based on, when Croft gets around to raiding a tomb in the movie’s last half hour, she discovers that Himiko was a kindly queen who was carrying a horrible disease. Trinity and Vogel want her body so they can weaponize for reasons that aren’t clear. Instead of fighting giant samurai and cultists, Croft spends the third act of the film trying not to touch a dead body. It’s boring.
Reducing Himiko to a literal corpse removes the game’s principal antagonist and messes with the Indiana Jones formula. Nobody opens an Ark or drinks from the wrong cup, though a few people catch a horrifying disease from a corpse.
What’s sad here is that the movie almost makes up for losing the supernatural element by replacing it with some terrifying science fiction. The disease in Himiko’s body doesn’t just dessicate bodies, but turns them into zombies. Unfortunately, we only see this happen once and what could have been a thrilling escape from the diseased never happens. The characters easily kill the few bad guys who get infected and move on with the plodding plot.
Without magic, Indy is just an archaeologist punching Nazis, Nathan Drake is just a rogue fighting faceless mercenaries, and Croft is just a bad ass platforming her way through scattered tombs. With it, these characters become something weird and memorable. Without magic, Tomb Raider is just another PG-13 action flick in a sea of similar movies with nothing to distinguish it beyond its ties to a popular video.