Tomb Raider’s popularity is genderless. For one reason or another, even the most misogynistic of men have found no problem raiding tombs as the one-woman legend Lara Croft, and many find a great deal of enjoyment in their female protagonist. Academics have investigated this extensively, with some speculating that the power of controlling a woman allows these men to overcome their initial prejudice. Another argument is that Lara’s sexualised form (the origins of which were apparently accidental) appeals particularly to these players and downplays the agency of the character via the male gaze.
The reboot of the game franchise, which began with 2013’s ‘Tomb Raider’ and is currently awaiting news on a third entry, focuses much more on Lara as a young, evolving adventurer. The first game – which the 2018 movie is based on – tells the origins of the icon, developing the character’s emotional and physical depth. The use of performance motion-capture means that this new era’s Lara is less overtly sexualised – she is, quite literally, a “real woman”. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that the Tomb Raider franchise today, whilst clearly influenced by the games that came before, reflects a Lara with much more agency, and a more easily accessible personality.
From the very beginning, then, director Roar Uthaug had a pretty big mountain to climb with his film adaptation of this incredibly cinematic and story-driven game. Whilst his efforts are admirable, and Alicia Vikander forms a perfect modern-day Lara, ‘Tomb Raider (2018)’ suffers greatly from a poor script and a needless focus on male supporting characters.
The film begins by situating our titular character in her hometown of London. Lara is an everyday millennial struggling to make ends meet as she balances boxing training with a delivery cyclist job; at first glance, she is a thousand miles from the life of an erudite Croft. Placing Lara in a local environment such as this allows her to develop depth of personality – we witness her natural bravery, competitiveness, and physical skill in a more relatable setting. She is constantly active, whether boxing, cycling, or running, and these sequences are filled with quick camera angles, all excitement and recklessness. These scenes are emblematic of Lara’s character and the fast-paced way in which she thinks, moves and lives. Unfortunately, Uthaug cuts these scenes far too short, diving directly into a haphazard mystery before Croft’s character can be fully fleshed out.
In a series of flashbacks, we discover Lara’s ultimate weakness: her father, who disappeared during an expedition seven years ago. Understandably, Lara is reluctant to declare him officially killed in action. When an old Japanese puzzle leads her to his secret journals, she decides to follow in his footsteps and head to the ancient island of Yamatai, in the hopes of discovering what happened to her father.
In order to do this, Lara needs a boat, and this is the film’s first opportunity to introduce an under-developed side character. Drunken sailor Lu Ren fell into ruin shortly after his father went missing on a mysterious trip seven years ago. (Yep, you guessed it, it’s the exact same trip that Lara’s father went missing on! What a coincidence.) Ren and Lara are two peas in a pod, both mourning their fathers who seemingly sacrificed themselves for a greater cause. Such a relationship could have provided an opportunity for sentimental discussion and could have been a way for Lara to make peace with her loss, but nothing is really done with this mirroring. Instead, Ren does very little for the plot, as he doesn’t have enough of a personality (besides being a Sad Drunk) to become a character that the audience really cares about. As a result, replicating Lara’s story does nothing but dilute the unique loneliness that eventually makes Lara who she is, as well as providing a needless male supporting character/potential love interest. (It should also be noted that Lu Ren may have been intended to be a replacement for Lara’s female best friend Sam Nishimura, who is key to the 2013 game.)
When Lara and Ren hit the island – quite literally, as they’re thrown from the boat – the plot begins to scramble upon itself. Yamatai is populated by a group of generic reprobates searching for a way to open the tomb of the Goddess of Death, Himiko. This very same goddess of death was the subject of Richard Croft’s research, meaning that Lara alone has the means to finally unlock the tomb and allow the raiders to retrieve Himiko’s body. These villains, however, may as well be faceless, for all the effort that is put into their writing, and the tale of Himiko is flat and dull in comparison to the video game. Whilst there’s an argument for diverting away from the game to maintain originality, the film replaces this story with a mess of fragments pulled from various game scenes and tropes. The carelessly strewn together finished product is predictable, boring, and a complete disservice to the franchise.
The film is at its strongest when Lara is alone, battling her way through everything that is thrown at her. To the apparent frustration of many, Lara is never sexualised. Though she wears a vest, such clothing is suitable for her task, and the film never manipulates this to provide sexual shots of her figure. Uthaug’s camera oscillates between focusing on the strength of Lara’s whole body, and the emotion displayed on her face. Vikander plays her part beautifully, embodying everything that Lara should be – strong, stubborn, brave, and instantly likable. Croft’s personality is captured in all its wonderfully varying elements, whether she is mourning her lost father, cheekily entertaining her friends, or stubbornly demanding that Ren do her bidding. The physicality of her body against the backdrops of the island is wonderful to see, as Lara forms a powerful silhouette; in these moments, it is easy for young girls to picture themselves in her shoes, transcending the landscape with a breathtakingly raw power. Chases and action-sequences are wonderfully directed, with the various elements of each separate location being used to their full potential (Lara jumping around a harbour is a particular highlight).
This is what Tomb Raider has always been about, but Uthaug’s film distracts from this independence at any opportunity possible, whether that be through Lu Ren, through the presence of a useless villain or through the character of Richard Croft. Additionally, these characters aren’t even interesting enough to warrant their inclusion; all three are disappointingly one note, and pale in comparison to Lara’s complexity.
Whilst ‘Tomb Raider’ nails the franchise’s aesthetic, from the iconic red pickaxe to the eerie desolation of the island, it blurs all the details that made Lara truly great, and ultimately cannot match the heights of the game. When we leave Lara at the end of the film, there are hints towards the potential for a sequel; perhaps all is not lost. Hopefully, now that she has undergone her first raiding experience with the crutches of Ren and her father, Lara will one day be allowed her own story on the big screen, as the strong, independent tomb raider that we know her to be.