"Every legend has a beginning," Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) explains in Tomb Raider. In this particular context, she's referring to the Japanese myth of the sorceress Queen Himiko, the origin of which her father, businessman turned intrepid archeologist Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), was pursuing until his mysterious disappearance seven years earlier. But the same words can easily be applied to Lara herself, as she embarks on the journey that would define an icon.
The character of Lara Croft has loomed large over our culture for 22 years now, through seven video game iterations, and two movies starring Angelina Jolie, all of which have served to craft a specific image. Norwegian director Roar Uthaug's reboot seeks to peel back those layers of lore, bringing the legend back to reality. It is, to borrow the language of superhero films, an origin story.
When we first meet Lara, she's a 21-year-old eking out a meagre living as a bike messenger, while sharing a flat in East London. Gone are the huge mansion and Croft fortune — this Lara doesn't even have enough in her bank account to pay for boxing lessons. Turns out, she can only inherit her birthright if she signs a document acknowledging her father's death, something she refuses to do despite repeated entreaties from her guardian, Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas). After a reckless contest lands her in jail, Lara finally decides it's time to get on with her life. That's when the family lawyer hands her a letter from her father, written before his final trip with instructions to be read only in the event of his death. In this missive, he left a series of clues, which lead Lara to a secret office inside the crypt of Croft Manor. Daddy, it seems, had a bit of a secret life behind that placid businessman facade.
For years before his disappearance, he was moonlighting as an archeologist of the occult, tracing folklore and myth back to their origins and collecting artefacts. In a pre-recorded video, dad warns Lara about an organisation called Trinity, hot on his tail in the race to find the final resting place of the killer sorceress Queen Himiko, whose apocalyptic force was contained by her enemies in a secure tomb hidden on Yamatai, an uncharted island off the coast of Japan. Convinced that finding that tomb is the only way of finding out what really happened to her father, Lara sets off on a adventure that's as much about self-discovery as it is recovery.
Ultimately though, the film's action plot is probably its weakest element. Based on a story by Evan Daugherty, and Geneva Robertson-Dworet, who co-wrote the screenplay along with Alastair Siddons, the pacing feels off. With so much time devoted to early sequences meant to prove that this is a whole different Lara, the actual raiding of the tomb feels rushed. For all of Richard Croft's explanations and clues, I have yet to figure out what his actual motivations are for seeking out a mummy that he claims could end the world. (Is it to find it first and keep it from Trinity? Use it to somehow reincarnate his dead wife? World domination? Your guess is as good as mine.) And as is often the case in these movies, the villain, Trinity operative Matthias Vogel (played with manic intensity by Walton Goggins) is more interesting than the people we're supposed to be rooting for.
The required action sequences are there, of course, and they're kind of cool (particularly one scene, in which the boat Lara has chartered is caught in a storm that literally rips it apart), but what really saves the film from being a dud is its focus on the development of its main character, a nuance that's usually missing from the genre.
If you were expecting another Jolie-like Lara, let me be the first to disappoint you. Vikander's take on the character is entirely her own, and that's a great thing. This is definitely a pivot for the actress, who won an Academy Award in 2016 for her performance alongside Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl. But if her petite frame raised questions about her ability to perform credible stunts prior to the film's release, she has more than dispelled them. In fact, the physical and emotional toll of being Lara Croft is more evident in this film than it ever was before: watching Vikander heave herself up onto the wing of a rusty World War II plane perched over a waterfall is to feel your own biceps burn; the look on her face when she makes her first kill makes it clear that this action has killed a part of herself forever. Partly, this is due to Vikander's acting, which is expressive and endearing, a pleasant surprise in a role known for its stoicity. But it also goes back to Uthaug's directorial choice to frame this seemingly superhuman woman as a mortal.
There's always been some debate as to how feminist a female character created for the male gaze can be. On the one hand, the idea of a female action hero who is as fiercely independent as she is capable is still rare enough to be cause for celebration. But when that she-ro's appearance is specifically geared to gratify male sexual fantasy, the empowerment flag tends to wane a little. (Case in point: The news of Vikander's casting had barely been announced when fans started complaining about her lack of boobs.)
This version of Lara is most definitely meant to placate those criticisms. A line that gets repeated throughout (too much) is that she's "not that kind of Croft." It's a not-so-subtle double entendre that tackles the expectations placed on her as her father's daughter, but also by fans hoping for a repeat of what they know. The short shorts have been replaced with more practical cargo pants, and the lack of love interest heralds a new era in which women can be seen to kick ass onscreen without having to make up for it by getting naked. (And actually, the fact that the closest we come to getting a love interest is in the form of Lu Ren, Lara's companion on her trip to Yamatai and played by Asian American actor Daniel Wu, is progressive in and of itself.)
In its final scene, the movie sets up what will probably be the first of many sequels with a wink to one of Lara's signature elements. The beginning is over — the legend has been reborn.
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