Examining Tomb Raider: a reboot for archaeology’s femme fatale
With a reputation that proceeds her, Lara Croft has returned to the big screen, rebooted and recast in the simply named Tomb Raider. Off the back of her Oscar wins for The Danish Girl, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander steps into the well-worn boots of Lara Croft: Bike Courier. Director Roar Uthaug and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dwore and Alastair Siddons work hard to exorcise the ghost of Angelina Jolie from the series right from the beginning: what we see isn’t the established femme fatale with a great pair of Glocks. Instead, it’s ‘millennial’ Lara who is struggling to figure out where she fits within the world and pay bills following the disappearance and death of her father, Richard Croft (Dominic West).
Fans of the most recent Lara Croft video games, particularly Tomb Raider (2013) and Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) will feel familiar with Vikander’s portrayal of a more athletic and realistic Lara. Square Enix’s redevelopment of Lara’s character as a more emotionally vulnerable and level-headed heroine and the adjustment of her physical appearance was a hit among fans and critics alike. Criticism has always followed the Tomb Raider franchise, but the film does a good job of addressing and subverting expectations.
The film, based off the Yamatai plotline from the 2013 video game, features a smaller cast. While Daniel Wu provides a solid performance ship captain Lu Ren, it is Walton Goggins who outshines Vikander and brings life into the desperate, stranded and morally-bankrupt archaeologist Mathias Vogel. For any actress, Lara Croft – lead and namesake of the series – isn’t a small part to play, and Vikander does so considerably well, who knows that her performance will be compared with Jolie’s iconic (but troublesome) representation. To the relief of many reviewers, there isn’t a steamy shower scene in sight.
While previous titles in the Tomb Raider series have strong ties with the supernatural – that is, immortal prophets, reawakened skeletons and dinosaurs – Uthaug and the writers have made a very conscious decision to minimise this link within the film. This, in my opinion, is one of the key complexities in the plot that saves this film from being ‘just another video game adaptation’. Throughout the film, Lara struggles to merge rational thought with the idea that curses, mummies and the supernatural exist.
While the screenplay is strong, it fails to actively challenge and reenergise the character’s backstory and origin as much as we may be used to; having been saturated with strong and reimagined hero’s journey in the handful of Marvel and DC Universe films in recent years. And while Lara isn’t a superhero, she is a heroine, and the screenplay follows very closely to the traditional formula of the hero’s journey – subverting it just enough to make it entertaining, but not enough to hide the trope completely.
One outstanding criticism from feminist viewings is the hinging Lara’s backstory as loving daughter of an eccentric archaeologist, a theme that has been explored in tropes within all three films and numerous video games. While her motivations are ingrained in her character, it is irksome to be consistently reminded Lara’s sole motivation within a storyline is to find her father, or to complete her father’s unfinished work.
Vikander also plays the only substantial female role within the film – there are women, of course, but very few. Kristin Scott Thomas plays Ana who is looking after the Croft Holding company following Lara’s father’s disappearance. There is also Sophie, Lara’s kick-boxing friend, but neither are on screen long. With the 2013 Tomb Raider game including a number of Lara’s female friends, and the criticism of the franchise not representing women well in the past, it is curious as to why the director and writers felt that those surrounding Lara needed to be men; as if adding another woman to the cast might have detracted from Lara’s storyline.
Overall, the Tomb Raider franchise has worked hard in the last decade to provide a more complex and realistic representation of Lara Croft as a character, and this film is a step in the right direction. Vikander’s portrayal is well-poised to represent the character in the coming years and with the next Tomb Raider video game, The Shadow of the Tomb Raider, expected for release in September 2018, the franchise seems ready to move forward and welcome the next generation of fans.
Tomb Raider is in cinemas now.