Even people who’ve never touched a video game controller know who Lara Croft is. The character first appeared in the game Tomb Raider 22 years ago, and from the start, she was transparently the product of a particularly straight male imagination: brilliant, gorgeous, absurdly athletic, and famously anatomically improbable. She became both a catalyst for the drive for more female protagonists in video games and, even among non-gamers, a sex symbol, noted especially for the size of her breasts, which were emphasized in the game.
Croft has been the protagonist of many Tomb Raider games since then and evolved in complexity as well as physical appearance. The Lara Croft of the game’s most recent iterations, beginning with the reboot in 2013, is less of a sexualized icon and more of a real character, strong and uncertain but gaining confidence throughout the game’s run. Her body proportions have been scaled down too, while retaining the extreme level of strength and fitness.
That development certainly mirrors shifting ideas about the place of women in the gaming world — and in games themselves — over the past two decades. But it also tracks with how audiences and filmmakers have slowly changed their ideas about women in action movies, something that’s paralleled by the Tomb Raider movies.
Two movies, in which Angelina Jolie (in a padded bra) played Croft, came out in 2001 and 2003, and both filmed her body in ways that are beginning to feel dated; the first more or less introduces her with a lingering crotch shot. The old Tomb Raider movies are terrible, patently silly and campy without the saving self-awareness of, say, The Mummy. But the 2018 reboot of Tomb Raider, starring Alicia Vikander as Croft, actually wants to be a movie. It’s got a story, and characters, and an emotional center, and it’s plotted in a way that sets up sequels.
The result is, well, pretty okay. The movie isn’t particularly clever or innovative, but as an action film, it’s satisfying. And it both parallels and diverges from the rebooted game, taking its cues from what players liked while throwing in just enough surprises to make it interesting to general audiences. Lara Croft 2.0 has finally made it to movie screens.
Tomb Raider sidesteps the problems common to video game movies
Movies based on video games are almost uniformly terrible, with very few exceptions, and the reason is sort of obvious: The fun of a video game comes from participating in the story. Players get to make choices and explore worlds and figure out puzzles, but the player is the one doing the work.
In a movie, though, there’s no direct participation. You watch the action unfold. So to keep the audience’s attention, the movie has to involve the audience emotionally, or surprise them, or otherwise keep them guessing and engaged.
Tomb Raider, directed by Norwegian director Roar Uthaug, takes a “both/and” approach to the problem of audience engagement, dialing up the emotional core that’s always been at the heart of the Tomb Raider franchise — the relationship between Lara and her long-lost father — while also finding ways to deviate from the story told in the game.
The screenplay (by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, from a story by Robertson-Dworet and Evan Daugherty) works like an origin story for a superheroine. Lara’s father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), disappeared seven years earlier, when Lara was a teenager. He’d been an adventurer and an explorer as well as a wealthy businessman, and he left behind a business empire that Lara stands to inherit.
But she’s not willing to declare him dead, not yet, and thus refuses to sign the paperwork that would let her collect her inheritance. Instead, she works as a bike courier in London.
However, circumstances conspire and Lara finds herself in Hong Kong, determined to find a way to a mythical island that might exist off the coast of Japan, where an ancient queen may or may not have been imprisoned in a tomb by her guards long ago. Whatever is in that tomb holds the key to Lara’s past. And — this being a movie based on a video game — the fate of the world may hang in the balance too.
For all its strengths, Tomb Raider can’t overcome the weakness of its central concept
Those who’ve played the 2013 Tomb Raider video game reboot will detect some similarities between the plot of the game and the plot of the film, both of which feature Lara on the island and the ancient queen. There are other similarities too: Though the game of course has many more challenges and puzzles, a few game sequences appear in the movie (including a sequence in which Lara keeps herself from hurtling over a waterfall by swinging into a rusted-out airplane hull, only to have it start to fall). But there are enough differences to keep even the experienced gamers engaged, including some big, unexpected plot twists.
The film’s other great strength is its cast (which also includes Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, and Kristin Scott Thomas), especially Vikander. As Lara, Vikander is terrific: By turns vulnerable and strong, brave and frightened, impish and determined, she ably fits the evolved character. The Lara of the rebooted games must gain confidence and push through her own pain in order to become a badass; Vikander embodies just that sort of character believably. (And she’s ridiculously, admirably strong — you may find yourself wanting to go straight to the gym and start doing chin-ups immediately.)
But for all of Tomb Raider’s strengths, it would still be a stretch to call it a good movie. It’s diverting, a good way to spend a couple of hours, but it’s hamstrung by something that’s unavoidable: The whole central concept — raiding tombs — is just, well, not that interesting. (Technically, there’s not even any raiding in this movie.) It’s more or less a retrieval quest, giving us a pretty good sense of how things will go down from the outset. And outside of a few brief scenes, it seems to completely lack a sense of humor about itself, which feels like a missed opportunity.
So even the film’s best efforts to make things interesting fall short of actual excitement, and as a result, Tomb Raider never rises above the level of being moderately entertaining, with cool action sequences and a kickass star. It does open up possibilities for a potentially intriguing follow-up sequel — presumably if this one makes enough money to convince the studio of the need for one — and compared to the incredibly bad Jolie Tomb Raider movies, this one is a masterpiece.
As the next evolution for Lara Croft, this movie is a solid effort. It trusts its heroine to be worth watching, not just ogling; it borrows enough from its source material to pay homage but isn’t slavishly devoted to it; and it makes it clear that Vikander can be an action star and act at the same time. The franchise centers on a place of death, but it suggests there’s still plenty of life left in Tomb Raider.
Tomb Raider opens in theaters on March 15.