Like almost every movie based on a video game, Tomb Raider finds itself weighed down by backstory. When it's allowed to be a straightforward action-adventure, director Roar Uthaug (a candidate for the Great Name Hall of Fame) and star Alicia Vikander shine. When it's time to build a larger world and prepare for the inevitable sequel, however, endless jargon kicks in and all momentum stalls.
If you've seen the Angelina Jolie movies or played the games, you get the gist. Vikander stars as Lara Croft, in this version a young woman about to inherit the family company after her father (Dominic West) mysteriously disappears. It turns out he's secretly been raiding tombs—for the good of the world, of course—and was lost during a super dangerous mission to keep an ancient queen locked in her final resting place.
Lara, though inexperienced, embraces her destiny and partners with a drunken sea captain (Daniel Wu) to reach the queen's island. Once there, she meets the cryptic and murderous Vogel (Walton Goggins), who realizes that this Croft daughter is the key to reaching the queen. Because this is a video game movie, he's also acknowledged as part of a shadowy worldwide organization that's dedicated to evil deeds and unlocking power, or something.
This is all revealed via West voiceovers during montages of maps, arguably the most boring way to relay information. It serves no purpose other than to drag the movie into the narrative muck and establish that Lara's mission is likely the first in a long chapter of adventures, a common trope in, say, video game loading screens but not quite necessary in a feature film.
Such consistent and overbearing world-establishing is a shame, because watching Vikander-as-Lara realize her talents is a real treat. Vikander plays Lara as an uncertain, untested young woman who is as surprised by her abilities as anyone. Her first battle to the death, in particular, makes for the movie's best scene; Lara is forced to kill or be killed, and Vikander's prowess makes her exhaustion and horror at the fight's conclusion feel quite real. And then, because it's a video game brought to the big screen, we're thrust back into some bullshit about mystical death queens.
She's accompanied by a decent supporting cast; West provides fatherly gravitas, and Kristin Scott Thomas gets to float through the periphery as a likely future thorn in Lara's side. The real waste is Goggins, who is excellent in almost everything (from The Shield to Justified to Vice Principals and his few major forays into motion pictures) but finds himself near-useless here. Goggins has a long career of expertly chewing scenery as a big bad, but his motivations are lazy and he has barely anything to work with. He's a fill-in origin story villain, with the dialogue to match.
No one was asking for a Raider reboot, yet nobody seemed particularly offended when a Vikander-led entry was announced. It's clear that Uthaug has talent; a lengthy sequence with Lara navigating a decomposing plane dangling over a waterfall feels genuinely exciting. But both director and actress can't overcome the vagaries of starting, or restarting, a franchise. Perhaps in Tomb Raider 2 they'll have a little more room to maneuver; for now, this is just decent enough to frustrate that it wasn't better.