Culture

You can practically see the square button flashing on the screen.

Tomb Raider Is a Perfect Video Game Adaptation — Which Is Why It’s Not a Great Movie

Video game movies are, historically—how do I put this?—yeah, they’re not very good. At all. I know that’s not exactly a controversial take. But it’s important that we can all agree on that before moving forward. See: Prince of Persia. Doom. This.

So it’s not like the new Tomb Raider has a particularly tough hill to climb. Calling something the best video game movie is like calling someone the best Brooklyn Net. It’s a relatively low bar.

But, as it turns out, the Tomb Raider reboot—starring Alicia Vikander as the new Lara Croft—is actually a pretty great video game adaptation. It’s just not a very good movie.

Basing its plot off the game franchise’s own 2013 reboot, the new Tomb Raider offers up a gritty, Batman Begins-esque origin story for the globetrotting heroine. When we first meet her, Lara is a down-on-her-luck London bike courier, not an ass-kicking adventurer. Still struggling to cope with the disappearance of her dear old dad (a perfectly meh Dominic West) seven years prior, she’s going nowhere. Until, that is, she uncovers a clue to where her dad might have gone. Cue the globetrotting. And the tomb raiding.

But unlike other video game movies that just grab a character and iconic costume or two and jam the rest into an otherwise generic action movie formula (ahem), you can tell there was a concerted effort to incorporate elements from the games into this movie. Vikander’s Lara doesn’t just kick ass and wear tank tops. She solves puzzles. Climbs over, and leaps onto, countless obstacles. Goes into stealth mode to sneak undetected through the bad guys’ camp in order to retrieve a key prop. There’s moments—like when Lara’s lunging through a decrepit plane that’s rapidly collapsing underneath her—that you can practically see the square button flashing on the screen. There’s even a “colour puzzle” where Lara just mashes different combinations of coloured amulets into an opening while getting increasingly frustrated (I told you this thing was faithful to the gaming experience).

That all makes the new Tomb Raider an excellent video game adaptation—maybe even the best one yet. But it’s also part of what keeps it from being a better movie. Vikander makes a solid Lara—more grounded and gritty and real than the outsized and oversexualized Jolie one—and she’s given a clearly defined character arc, but again, it’s the video game version. All broad stroke abandonment issues and tired platitudes about never giving up.1

In a game, we’re willing to overlook these generic, clichéd storylines or underwritten characters, because the actual fun is getting to play the rest of it. Solving those puzzles. Stealthily picking off anonymous henchmen with a bow and arrow. In a game, these moments are the draw. The payoff for sitting through all the character-building cutscenes that break up the action. But as video games become more cinematic, it’s also seemingly getting harder to make good movie versions of these games. Who wants to sit back while someone else grabs the controller during all the good parts? This new Tomb Raider looks like it would be a blast to play.2 Problem is, it’s not nearly as fun to watch.

That’s why the best so-called video game movies aren’t actually based on real games, so much as they’re inspired by them—Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edge of Tomorrow, Tron, even the new Jumanjii sequel—they take video game tropes and use those as a jumping off point to tell a larger story. The big action, video game-y setpieces are there to break up and advance the narrative, not the other way around. In a movie, the character has to be the main draw.3

So, yes, Alicia Vikander is a very good Lara Croft, and Tomb Raider is a very good video game adaptation. Hopefully next time they’ll both get a better movie.

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1. I guess her and husband Michael Fassbender forgot to share notes.
2. Except for the stealth stuff—I never had the patience for those.
3. It’s also probably why we still have yet to see an Uncharted movie make it to the big screen—the games are essentially a slightly-tweaked, playable Indiana Jones. What’s the point of making a copy of a copy?