Directed by: Roar Uthaug
Written by: Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (screenplay), Evan Daugherty and
Geneva Robertson-Dworet (story)
Starring: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Kristin Scott Thomas
In movies, as in life, the game people play is one of expectations and, in the case of the latest entry in the Lara Croft franchise, expectations are bound to end up in disappointment. Disappointment for those expecting an effort in the same vein as Angelina Jolie’s original outings, for those at the other end of the spectrum who wanted an intellectually stimulating reinvention, and for those longing for nothing more than a standard studio tentpole. Norweigian director Roar Uthaug’s latest bona fide blockbuster-wannabe following his disaster epic Bolgen (The Wave) is none of those. Yet, these are the same exact reasons why those who have gone into theaters devoid of such baggage may find it unexpectedly, thankfully satisfying.
Approaching the material with an extremely welcome technical formalism that seems more in line with the late ’70s spectacle and ’80s adventure filmmaking that Friedkin and Spielberg introduced than any current summer cinema philosophy, Uthaug delivers no-nonsense storytelling that moves exactly at the pace it needs, shockingly heedless of potential ADD-laden test screening audiences. Which is not to say that the movie is boring – it wouldn’t even be fair to label it as leisurely – but it does take the time to set the stage and introduce the characters in it, namely Lara and her father (Dominic West). And it is because of that that the movie works; what would come off as nothing but filler almost anywhere else (say, the original Tomb Raider duology) here builds the foundation for the entire assortment of shenanigans to come and ends up being the first big reason why we actually care about anything at all. The other and ultimately most important being, of course, Alicia Vikander.
She isn’t Lara Croft: Tomb Raider because this is (as essentially all remakes, reimaginings, reboots and soft reboots are required to be nowadays) Lara Begins, and when we meet her she has not raided any tombs (and doesn’t until more or less one hour and a half into the movie). The classic iconography – strap-on guns, hot pants, 36DD bosom – is absent.
Vikander, instead, gives us quite the enchanting creation; her Lara is a young woman – a girl, almost – whose first onscreen action is losing a match against a tough fighter during gym training and timidly trash talking behind her back. Then she rides her bike straight into a passing car and falls flat on her ass. Her demeanor is laidback and easy-going and when one co-worker tries to ask her out, eventually failing, we not only understand his infatuation but, also, that she would never reject anyone in anything but the kindest way. Notably absent is Jolie’s trademark gaze with the curved, raised eyebrows and sly, semi-dropped lids that politely ask you to drop dead and go to hell.
I’m sure those traits alone suffice to turn off all gaming purists but to John Q. Public – myself, in other words – they are truly efficient hooks. Where Simon West, Jan de Bont and, above all, Jolie herself portrayed Croft as an invincible superhuman, Uthuag and Vikander go the complete opposite way, infusing into their creation more John McClane than Jason Bourne. While it indeed is exhilarating to obtain catharsis from unstoppable forces of nature, witnessing a mostly normal individual enduring a neverending avalanche of mishaps allowed me to become extremely more empathetic.
Such mishaps come straight out of an Indiana Jones movie, bringing The Last Crusade to mind constantly but once again going against the grain in that there is only one set piece in the entire movie strictly speaking (disregarding the playful bicycle chase at the beginning). This further underlines the precedence of narrative over meaningless bells and whistles and warrants an impatient backlash from a huge chunk of the audience. That one set piece, however – a balancing act on a crumbling plane’s wing stuck on a waterfall’s edge – was featured in the trailers but despite original impressions it offers much more than meets the eye. This alone was worth the price of admission for me with its deliberate succession of obstacles and plain bad luck pulling me closer to the edge of my seat, engaging me so completely that by the time I saw her jump farther than an Olympic athlete the illusion was thoroughly complete: a textbook example of how to force me, the audience, to suspend my disbelief.
There’s a lot of action all throughout the rest of the movie, for sure, but for the most part it consists of perfectly staged run-of-the-mill beats with fist fights, shootouts, and yet again more jumping – she has four heart-stopping leaps if I counted correctly – that advance the story in the clearest possible way. I, gratefully, can’t recall there being any handheld camera at any time.
By the time we are offered a new threat to plague the sequel, the title flashes onscreen and the stinger scene promises a more traditional Lara for the next outing, the movie stands equally distant from the cartoonish exploits brought to us almost twenty years ago and the current Christopher Nolan-inspired addiction to realism. There is no shortage of unlikely hidden traps and moving floors and ceilings but the movie’s insistence to face all of them with a straight face is irresistibly endearing.
But, as previously stated, what genuinely made this a winner was Vikander. After making a career out of playing cold, calculating and cerebral (at least for a casual filmgoer solely familiar with her most mainstream turns in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Ex Machina, The Danish Girl and Jason Bourne), she effortlessly delivers a star-making performance that left me very eager to see her play again in such a likable fashion, whether in this reborn franchise’s next installment or wherever else she may fancy. — Eloy Ricardo Balderas Salazar