Thursday, 15 March 2018

IN THEATRES: Tomb Raider

Determined to find out what happened to her father, a young Lara Croft (the Vikander) follows a trail of clues to a mysterious island that holds the key to his fate... and the world's! DUN DUN DUHHHH!!!!!

I still can't believe this movie exists. I look at the poster and there is something that does not feel right - like wearing a shoe that is one size too big. The movie is constructed to serve two purposes - one is to re-launch Tomb Raider as a movie franchise; the other is to turn the Vikander into an action star.

In terms of the first goal, the movie feels like a near-miss. The movie's focus on stripping away the supernatural trappings and making everything feel tactile and 'real' pays off as much as it doesn't.

In terms of set pieces, the movie is surprisingly immersive. Director Roar Uthaug and his team focus on hyper-real sound design and old-fashioned camerawork - the trailers imply otherwise, but there are  no gravity-defying CG camera moves, and no weightless character CGI. There is an emphasis on real stunts captured in-camera. There is an admirable level of detail to Lara's struggle that might be the big takeaway.
In this respect, the movie does a good job of building sympathy for its heroine in the immediate sense - when Lara is running from the villains, and struggling against her physical environment, the movie works. But in terms of genuine character identification, in overview the movie fails. And part of the problem is miscasting.

The Vikander has always had an ambiguous quality that has been a strength in her best roles - a humanoid machine with ambiguous motives in Ex Machina; the disintegrating queen in A Royal Affair. This movie's version of Lara is meant to be young, na├»ve and a bit of a smart ass with her heart on her sleeve. The Vikander is never able to get that exposed - early sequences present her as a bike courier, joking with her mates and engaging in adrenaline-pumping hijinks (kickboxing, illegal bike racing).

When the movie tries to make Lara 'relatable', Vikander's inherent unknowability gets in the way. When she tries to crack a joke (and there are A LOT of them), it never rings true. You never buy Vikander as an everywoman, a bike messenger who delivers kebabs and can't pay her rent.
Both actress and character jostle in these early scenes - it would have probably worked better if Croft were presented as a spoilt rich kid who knows languages and kickboxing because she can afford them, and then is forced by the situation to learn how to use her skills and become a relatable person that way. I can see this version of the character working in this story - an arrogant spoilt rich kid forced to contend with the real world. I could also see Vikander working as that version of the character.

This alternative version of the character popped into my head as the movie gets into the Tomb Raiding of it all. The filmmakers make Vikander's unlikely frame and presence an asset, emphasising her limitations, and showing her pain, exhaustion and terror as she is forced to deal with the elements and homicidal mercenaries. Vikander is believably put-upon, but the clumsy first act means she never feels secure in the role.

The movie it feels closest to is Batman Begins - it is an origin story of an icon, stripped of its more fantastical trappings and with a flashback narrative. But whereas the flashback structure of the Christopher Nolan movie were woven into the story, and served the purpose of identifying and building the character of Bruce Wayne, the flashback structure in Tomb Raider serves little purpose other than to re-state that Lara Croft loved her dad. Again. And again. And...

If this project were not Tomb Raider, and was some kind of survivalist action movie starring Vikander as an ordinary woman in over her head, this movie might have had more room to move. Tomb Raider and Vikander cannot occupy the same space for long. The movie is never terrible, but that disconnect means the movie is never as involving as it wants to be.

If the movie has standouts, they are Dominic West as her father, and Daniel Wu as Lara's traveling companion/potential love interest. They don't get a lot to do, but they put Vikander in the shade with about the same amount of character development.

Throughout this movie, I found myself appreciating the movie's aesthetics without ever being able to immerse myself in it. I found myself fascinated by its star as she struggled to gain a purchase on her character. I have no desire to see this movie again, but as a one-off, two-hour exercise in transparent franchise-building it was kind of interesting.

Which is a long way of saying there are better ways you can spend your money.

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