The ghost of Angelina Jolie past — that mesmerizing dark star, to the screen born — hangs over the new, suitably titled “Tomb Raider” A dreary, inept reboot of the franchise that helped propel Ms. Jolie into global domination (and pop-culture divinity), it stars the talented, badly misused Swedish actress Alicia Vikander as the British adventurer Lara Croft. Sexed down and pumped up, Ms. Vikander certainly looks the role, with flowing hair and a washboard stomach you could play the blues on. She runs, jumps and leaps into this yawning void with grim determination.
There are many ways for a movie to go wrong, and “Tomb Raider” goes wrong in many of the most obvious: It has a generic story, bad writing, a miscast lead, the wrong director and no fun. When you first meet Lara Croft, she’s doing the poor little rich girl thing in London, working as a bike messenger and kick boxing in her off hours. Her globe-traveling zillionaire father (Dominic West) disappeared years ago while chasing down a Japanese goddess of death or some such. Refusing to accept either his death or her inheritance, she ends up taking her daddy issues to Asia.
First, Lara runs around Hong Kong, where she hires a cute boozer captain (an underused Daniel Wu) who instantly sobers up and takes her to a mysterious isle. There, she runs and runs some more, dodging danger and villains who are also searching for her father’s mystery goddess. The lead baddie is a cookie-cutter scoundrel, but at least he’s played by Walton Goggins, a skilled mustache twirler (as he regularly proved on the TV show “Justified.”) Looking rather like a midcareer Bruce Dern here, Mr. Goggins oils up his rust-bucket role enough to give it a hint of personality.
Ms. Vikander barely manages to do the same with Lara, a center who can’t hold. An appealing performer who popped off the screen as the enigmatic android in “Ex Machina,” Ms. Vikander never settles comfortably into Lara, whether she’s delivering the empty, often risible dialogue or running the movie’s endless obstacle course. She has a trained ballet dancer’s familiar amalgam of silk and steel — the fluid gestures, the ramrod posture — and she can move beautifully, as she showed in “Ex Machina.” Here, though, she often seems to be trying too hard; at times you can almost see her thinking about the marks she needs to hit. You see the strain, not the play.
And without play, there’s nothing left but franchise fumes. The first “Tomb Raider” movies are ridiculous, but they have their minor satisfactions, not least being Ms. Jolie’s badass superbabe. A video game heroine turned media franchise, Lara Croft, with her pneumatic breasts and heavy guns, always came off as an onanistic cartoon for 12-year-old boys. With her amused smile and self-possession, Ms. Jolie seemed happy to strut around in Lara’s shorts and big boots, but she also seemed to be there for her own pleasure, which she made easy for girls (and women) to share. Ms. Vikander doesn’t yet have that kind of self-possession, but one day might.
No one person deserves all the credit or blame for an industrial product like “Tomb Raider”; one place to start griping, though, is with those who signed off on its script. (The writers are Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons.) The director Roar Uthaug knows how to work on a sizable scale as he proved in “The Wave,” an amusing nail-biter about a tsunami that sweeps away a Norwegian paradise. But he can’t make “Tomb Raider” work on any level or in any location. At times, he seems to be playing with genre, particularly when Lara hits the island and begins pinballing from peril to peril, but the action is leaden, dispirited and finally dispiriting.
The art of the blockbuster is too rarely acknowledged. It takes a true skill set and a distinct pop sensibility to turn a large-scale commercial property with no pretense to art and a great many moving parts into a smoothly enjoyable diversion. A fat budget can help, but more crucial still is a director who takes evanescent cinematic pleasures seriously. Jan de Bont, who directed the 2003 “Tomb Raider” sequel (and the first “Speed”) could sometimes hit that sweet spot; Steven Spielberg always dependably does, and Steven Soderbergh can, when he feels like it. Of course it helps if a director has something actually to do beyond rummaging in a boneyard like this.