Adaptations are a helluva thing. And in the case of Tomb Raider, we may have the best video game film adaptation to date. Nonetheless, converting video game IP to film still has a ways to go.
One example of how different a game and its film adaptation can be is the opening sequence of the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot game and the 2018 film directed by Roar Uthaug. The game opens with Lara Croft escape from a sinking ship. The player learns some of the key game mechanics as the younger Lara and her friends aboard the sailing ship Endurance are introduced. It is also a thrilling sequence. The film opens with voiceover from Lara’s father Richard (The Wire‘s Dominic West) regard his search for supernatural forces on the Japanese island of Yamatai. A scaled down version of Lara’s (Alicia Vikander) escape from the Endurance occurs 40 minutes into the film with only Daniel Wu’s Lu Ren representing the game’s missing characters.
The above example illustrates the precarious situation filmmakers find themselves in when converting a video game to a feature film. The Tomb Raider reboot game and its sequel were released to acclaim within the game industry. The film came and went during its theatrical run and now arrives on home video for us to examine why it doesn’t quite work while also being a rather accomplished looking film.
Spoilers, of course, follow.
As explained in one of the bonus featurettes, producer Graham King and screenwriters Alastair Siddons and Geneva Robertson-Dworet wanted Lara to have a very personal connection to the situation on Yamatai, the key location in both the game and the movie. Consequently, they removed all of her friends from the Endurance — characters the player meets and bonds with over the course of the first reboot game — in favor of her not-so-deceased father. Over the course of the film, that choice makes Lara less knowable as the entire film is really about Richard, his quest for Yamatai’s secrets and his ongoing war with an organization known as Trinity. Lara is more of a guest character in a Richard Croft adventure despite owning the first hour of the film. Curiously, all the material in London and Hong Kong maker her more distant a character than if the film had followed the game’s story and opening aboard the Endurance with people Lara has known for years.
While the game also sends Lara to Yamatai to finish her father’s quest, the focus is squarely on her as she rescues her friends, learns about a secret cult on the island, and rigs various pieces of abandoned WWII technology to pull off a rescue. She also acquires key pieces of equipment like her bow and a climber’s axe. They appear in the film, but are given to her fully formed instead of allowing her to discover them for herself. It is a key shift which underscores the film’s main problem as both a feature in its own right and as an adaptation of a critically acclaimed video game: it isn’t Lara story’s.
Nonetheless, Uthaug takes the reworked story and shoots the hell out of it on a fairly modest budget. The look reflects the stripped-down survival game atmosphere of the 2013 game with a little twinge of the older Tomb Raider series once Richard, Lara and Matthias (Walton Goggins) enter the tomb of Queen Himiko. It is very different from the tomb in the game, but its death traps, puzzle locks and ultimate secret will feel very familiar to players of the older games. Uthaug also makes the transition from the reboot aesthetic to the classic series look rather seamlessly.
He also cast the picture smartly with Vikander, West and Van Damme giving their all to the proceedings. Vikander, in particular, transformed herself into the image of Lara seen in the reboot game. Her physicality as Lara may be the most successful part of the adaptation despite her reduced status in the plot. Similarly, West’s seemingly effortless charm and skill almost gets you to forgive his elevated importance in the narrative. Goggins is such an effective screen villain that it is almost cheating to cast them.
Although, it should be mentioned his character was re-imagined from cult leader to a private military contractor hired by Trinity. His motivations are less compelling as he is just a hired goon. Like Vikander, Goggins’s performance is in the service of a character better realized in the game’s writing.
Which, in the end, leaves Tomb Raider to be remembered as a well-crafted film with a mediocre story. It will also become a footnote like the previous Lara Croft: Tomb Raider film series starring Angelina Jolie.
Special features include a number of re-purposed EPK interviews and a brief overview or Lara’s history in games. One featurette examining the film’s recreation of Lara’s fall into the rapids is an interesting look at how often CGI imperceptibly blends in with live action material nowadays But like the film itself, the features offer far less depth than a Tomb Raider film should reasonably offer.
Tomb Raider is now available on disc and digital platforms.