Can the new Tomb Raider beat the old video game movie curse?

We examine the genre and talk to the film’s director, Roar Uthaug, on why he believes his new approach will succeed where so many others have failed

Alicia Vikander in a scene from "Tomb Raider." Ilzek Kitshoff / Warner Bros. Pictures
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You'd be forgiven for wondering why directors ever agree to take on the task of adapting a video game into a film. We've waited for a genuine, unqualified success ever since Bob Hoskins pulled on his plumber's hat for the critically mauled Super Mario Bros in 1993, and the critics have kept mauling adaptations ever since. In fact, the paltry 15 per cent that the Mario adaptation has garnered on Rotten Tomatoes looks fairly respectable when compared to the likes of the one per cent achieved by Alone in the Dark, or Mortal Kombat: Annihalation's three per cent.

Perhaps that's why Hollywood has started looking further afield for its video game adaptation directors, as Norwegain Roar Uthaug steps up to take on the task of bringing life back to the Tomb Raider franchise, which last saw Angelina Jolie strap on adventurer Lara Croft's twin pistols in 2003's Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life.

For Uthaug, the secret of avoiding the video game curse lies in a very simple thing – characterisation: "We're doing a gritty and authentic take on Tomb Raider and creating a Lara who's a badass, but is also vulnerable and imperfect. That makes her very relatable," he explains. 

To assist Uthaug in his Herculean task, he's drafted Alicia Vikander to take on the latest incarnation of the indomitable Croft, and he seems pleased with the results.

“Alicia is special and dedicated to her craft,” he says. “She worked incredibly hard on all her physical training and preparation with the stunt team.  As an actress, Alicia has such a presence and authenticity, which give her scenes a grounded feeling and an emotional connection that we’re not used to experiencing in a movie like this. Of course, we have the big scope and scale and action you’d expect, but there’s an engaging character – Alicia’s Lara – at the film’s core. I’m very humbled by the responsibility of creating a new version of such an iconic character.”

For all the intricate character building, though, a movie like Tomb Raider is always going to be, at heart, about the big action sequences, effects and monsters. Uthaug insists he didn't feel any sense of conflict due to the two seemingly competing elements of the film.

“The spectacle doesn’t work if you don’t care about the character,” the director says. “So, first you must create a character that the audience will root for. When you have that, the audience becomes engaged. They can really experience everything that’s happening to that character.”

The director singles out the movie’s villain Mathias, played by Walton Goggins for particular praise.

"Walton is fun and energetic and brings the set alive," he says.  "He has a great presence in front of the camera, and he makes for a dangerous villain. We discussed creating this villain that's not a traditional bad guy with a scheme to destroy the world. Mathias is a man on a mission and he is the hero of his own story.  Mathias has layers, which Walton brought to the character. He can be very intimidating on screen, although he's super fun off-screen."

Uthaug adds that he is himself a huge fan of the original Tomb Raider games, but perhaps in a pre-emptive effort to ward off the curse of the video game adaptation, he insists you don't need to be a gamer, or even familiar with the original game, to enjoy his movie.

“This is a standalone movie – an origin story about Lara Croft,” he insists.

It's so much of an origin movie, in fact, that the Lara we meet hasn't even acquired her pistols yet – she'll become acquainted with those in the movie's very last scene and, Uthaug no doubt hopes, numerous sequels.

For now, this latest Lara is hoping to appeal to more than just the fan boys.

“We made it for everyone, you don’t need to know the game to enjoy it,” he says. “Audiences will love the large-scale action, which unfolds in an authentic way. There’s a powerful humanity at the heart of the film.”


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