What to expect as Alicia Vikander takes over for Angelina Jolie in the new ‘Tomb Raider.’
Some of my earliest memories of video games aren’t of actually playing them. I have a distinct recollection of watching my childhood friend’s eldest sister playing the ’90s Tomb Raider series on their PlayStation. The original Tomb Raider games were iconic, famed as much for their imaginative stories as for their gameplay. It’s no surprise that over two decades down the line, Hollywood is rebooting the franchise on the big screen for the second time. But the kid version of me probably also intuited something more significant than the simple thrill of the stories. The fact that boys and girls were playing games with strong female protagonists probably struck me as an exciting change from the standardized boyish world of ’90s mainstream video games. In the hyper-macho world of other first-person shooters like Duke Nukem and Doom, or the boys’ club of Super Mario Bros. and the deceptively titled Zelda, women and girls were largely cast as princesses in distress or entirely absent from the picture. Femininity was either “saved” or erased.
Tomb Raider (1996) changed that. The story of an English aristocratic archaeologist who travels around the world, uncovering lost treasures and fighting off baddies, appealed to our sense of adventure. While many cite 1986’s Metroid as the first instance of a video game with a playable female protagonist (Samus Aran), Lara Croft was the one who really got the ball rolling, quickly becoming the face of the movement.
British gaming company Core Design began developing the original Tomb Raider in 1993, releasing it three years later. Though many played a part in its inception, Toby Gard guided the franchise in its early days. Initially brought on as only a creative consultant, Gard ultimately assumed a much more extensive role in the game’s writing, artistic design, and direction. With the success of its maiden voyage, a string of yearly sequels followed until the early 2000s when the franchise was taken over by Crystal Dynamics, the game’s main developers to this day.
The year 2001 marked a milestone in the game’s history with the introduction of another of the franchise’s most famous protagonists: Angelina Jolie. Jolie wowed and charmed audiences around the globe with her badass sass, sophistication and good looks. Though by no means critics’ darling, the movie consolidated the story in the popular consciousness, and a sequel arrived in 2003 to slightly greater acclaim. With two movies to its name and at least 58 million copies (of the whopping 20-odd games) sold worldwide, Tomb Raider is still going strong.
Enter: the new ‘Tomb Raider,’ Norwegian film director Roar Uthaug’s 2018 reboot.
This year’s movie sees Alicia Vikander pick up where Jolie left off, carrying the torch for a new generation of fans. Vikander describes the film’s place in the odyssey as an “origins story.” It begins with a young Lara living in east London, paying her way through college as a bike courier, reluctant to inherit the Croft family fortune and determined to carve her own way in the world. However, still troubled by the mysterious circumstances of her father’s death, she resolves to investigate what became of him and his work, setting off on an adventure that takes her halfway around the world to a remote island off Japan. With trouble afoot and only her intelligence and trusty bow and arrow to defend herself, she navigates her way against enemies and all odds to uncover secrets that will change the course of her life, “earning her the name Tomb Raider.”
Production for the movie began as early as 2011 when the British company GK Films acquired the rights to it. Director Uthaug (Escape 2012 and The Wave 2015) got on board in 2015, and filming took place in Cape Town and England during 2017. Alongside the Academy Award–winning Vikander (Ex Machina 2014 and The Danish Girl 2015), the movie stars The Wire (2002-2008) legend Dominic West as the late Daddy Croft, and the one and only Kristin Scott Thomas (The English Patient 1996 and Only God Forgives 2013) in supporting roles. Despite defining the character in many ways, Jolie has maybe met her match. The Swedish-born Vikander (whose name is pronounced like this) trained as a ballet dancer with the School of American Ballet in New York before becoming an actor and is known to be quite the athlete. “She’s been training hard: fight club, wire work, water work, shootouts, chases — it’s relentless,” stunt coordinator Franklin Henson explains. Indeed, as costar and martial artist Daniel Wu brags, “When it comes to the action, Alicia is a beast.”
And it seems Vikander’s own attraction to the role is not dissimilar to my own memory of the character’s incarnation: “I was quite young,” she says. “I was only eight. I remember my dad’s friend’s children, they had a PlayStation. I remember when they played Lara Croft. I hadn’t seen a girl in the lead character in a video game. She was extremely fierce and determined and capable and a big adventurer. I’ve been dreaming since I was a kid to be part of a big action adventure, to push myself. And in this film, I really get to do that.”
Assuming the role of the “best-selling human video game heroine” in history is no small responsibility and takes a certain kind of actor. It seems the attraction to Lara often originates with a personal connection to the idea of her as a strong, independent woman rather than just another trigger-happy action hero.
Lara Croft’s womanhood and sexuality have spurred intense debate over the years. For some, she is the archetypal empowered female: strong, fiercely independent, intelligent. For others, she is a projection of a teenage, heterosexual male fantasy — a hypersexualized object upholding false and unrealistic standards of female beauty. Whether it’s one or the other depends on which version of Lara Croft we’re talking about. Her form, figure and stunts change game to game and (now) movie to movie. It’s possible to observe a shift in the last decade away from the physics-defying anatomical proportions of the ’90s Lara, with Jolie at the end, to a more believable rendition in the late 2000s. Some worry, however, this might still only be half the job done, as it seems to have come at the cost of greater bloodlust.
From another perspective, there’s always the risk of over-egging the “strong, independent female” angle, mollycoddling and fetishizing the subject just to cash in on a due cause at the expense of allowing the story to live and breathe as a piece of drama itself. In other words, is Lara Croft a great piece of popular culture because her womanhood is foregrounded or because her womanhood is treated as just one aspect of her character? Beyond this, wider debates continue to rage as to when the otherwise positive representation of female sexuality shifts to become simple exploitation. Or, as Kathy Miriam has it, “an example of a kind of feminism that has effectively supplanted a collective world-changing project with individualized empowerment.”
Many critics, gamers and fanatics alike have already tried to tackle some of these questions. From analyzing the representation of video game characters’ butts to putting one of the previous games through the Bechdel Test (which assesses how dimensional a given female character is), the fan literature is extensive. Some left-field readings of the franchise have even proposed that the very fact of men playing as Lara in the games constitutes a kind of radical queering — transgendering the game player by occupying the body of the character they’re playing as. As with most popular culture, all manner of complex philosophical questions lie just beneath the surface of what otherwise is just plain old good fun. Ultimately, it all comes down to how a character is presented, how the story is told and, indeed, who tells it.
As to this year’s movie, well, I’ll leave it to you to decide if Vikander makes the Lara Croft hall of fame, but we’re all rooting for her. You can catch the new Tomb Raider in theaters across the U.S. on March 16.