Alicia Vikander's Tomb Raider May Be the Best Version of Lara Croft Yet
Prior to Tomb Raider, there were hardly any video game heroines who managed to maintain the balance of simultaneously being a sex symbol and symbol of female empowerment. Introduced to the world in 1996 by game developer Eidos, Lara Croft was created to combat female stereotypes in gaming. Originally conceptualized as a gender-bent Indiana Jones and inspired by Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl, Lara Croft far outgrew her influences and has become one of most iconic video game characters of all time.
Japanese developers Square Enix acquired Eidos in 2009 and rebooted the franchise in 2013, moving the character away from the suave, globe-trotting heiress most audiences are familiar with, thanks to earlier films headlined by Angelina Jolie. This new Tomb Raider is based on the reboot, and reinvents Lara as a young, inexperienced adventurer who’s more relatable than the superhuman version of the 2001 and 2003 releases.
This Tomb Raider is an origin story, and Norwegian director Roar Uthaug crafts a touching narrative of a daddy’s girl who misses her father and refuses to sign papers declaring his death in absentia. At the beginning of the movie, Alicia Vikander's Lara Croft is a young, fiercely independent young woman barely making ends meet as a bike courier in London. Her father, Richard Croft, is a wealthy adventurer who disappeared years before. Summoned to receive her inheritance, Lara instead stumbles on her father's work, and goes in search of him.
As in the game, most of the action happens in the fictional island of Yamatai, where a mysterious organization called Trinity hunts for the lost tomb of Himiko, a legendary empress with a mystical touch of death. Lara goes up against Trinity member Mathias Vogel (played by Walton Goggins)—a generic, forgettable, two-dimensional villain. But that's fine, because Vogel is merely a distraction for the real action. The fun really begins when the story moves to Himiko’s tomb, where Lara demonstrates the action-hero mettle that foreshadows her future as a swashbuckling adventurer.
Vikander's Lara Croft is less James Bond and more John McClane. Throughout the film, Croft will get so banged up you almost expect a scene where she extracts shards of glass from her bare feet. (There isn’t one, but she does get a similar moment with a piece of wood in her gut.)
But at its heart, Tomb Raider is about the relationship between Lara and her father (here portrayed by Dominic West), and the process of letting go and moving on. The old films might have tried to play up this father-daughter relationship—especially by casting Jolie’s real life dad, Jon Voight, in the role—but they never come close to the depths that the new film explores.
The entire film is also character-building exercise crafted to prove that Lara is a worthy heroine, stripped away of all the benefits of the Croft name. Unlike the game’s archaeology graduate, movie Lara never bothered with uni and plods on through sheer stubbornness, grit, and sharp wit. No money, no guns, just bull-headed resolve and a backpack. In this outing, we get Rookie Lara Croft, and it’s the best version yet.
The supporting cast helps to make Lara more relatable and sympathetic. Daniel Wu plays a ship's captain named Lu Ren, whose own father ventured into Yamatai with Lara’s father. Though Lu Ren is little more than a glorified sidekick, Wu and Vikander play off each other really well—though Wu is practically impossible to dislike no matter what role he plays, so it’s a bit of a cheat. (His Into the Badlands buddy, Nick Frost, appears in a cameo to whet fans' appetites until the show returns in April).
This Tomb Raider is still a video game movie, and there are some head-scratchers that you’ll simply need to chalk up to the faults of the genre, such as Lara moving around the enemy camp in plain sight without attracting any attention. Not quite sure at what point the bow and arrow became the de rigueur weapon of heroines, but Lara can outshoot machine guns which seems on par with video game logic.
Overall, Tomb Raider is a fun watch with a grittier, spunkier, Lara Croft updated for the times. That the film almost manages to downplay Vikander's sex appeal is a triumph, considering the character’s place in pop culture. What the new Lara Croft lost in suave charm and sex appeal, she’s gained in toughness and the beauty of her sheer physicality. Vikander sports a lean, shredded musculature that’s perfectly suited for combat and adventure. If Jolie’s Lara was a little more Baywatch, Vikander’s is a little more UFC.
The door is left open for a sequel and because we get to see what Lara can do with very limited resources, we’re tickled by the possibility of what she’s capable of when she has access to the Croft family fortune. Tomb Raider is definitely one of the best video game movies ever made. Never mind that that’s not a terribly high bar to clear. It falters in far too many areas for it to elevate itself beyond its source material, but it’s still a fairly good action movie.