It took almost 20 years for Lara Croft to overcome her defining status as gaming’s big-breasted nerd fantasy woman and become the patron saint of getting shit done. All it took was a masterful reboot from Crystal Dynamics in 2013’s Tomb Raider that focused on traits specifically meant to humanize the character, namely her capacity to overcome adversity and some serious pain. With a film reboot currently in production, the same things that made the 2013 video game reboot work can help the film series evolve past the two Angelina Jolie-starring film adaptations.
Like Nintendo’s Mario or Sega’s Sonic, Lara Croft is one of those classic video game characters immediately associated with the medium. Unlike the other two mascots, however, Croft suffers from a legacy steeped in a history of sexist advertisements and a popular perception as a kind of sex fantasy for young male gamers. If Tomb Raider was going to be taken seriously as a franchise, there would need to be some serious changes to the character.
That drastic measure came in 2011 when Crystal Dynamics announced a franchise reboot. Introduced with the tagline “A Survivor is Born,” Tomb Raider introduced a brand new Lara Croft, complete with a fresh look and origin story. The reboot was meant to transform the long-running adventure series from a relic of ‘90s pop culture into something more in-line with what video games are now capable of in terms of storytelling and design.
Revisiting the game now, nearly five years after it was released, it’s still surprising what a change the game is from its predecessors. While the older Tomb Raider games were by no means bad, they now feel archaic, forgoing narrative development in favor of engaging gameplay. The fact that their main heroine was popularly perceived by critics and onlookers as a pair of acrobatic breasts that can shoot guns just came with the territory of a Tomb Raider game — it was her “brand,” if you will.
And that brand was the template used for the Angelina Jolie films as well, which feel particularly at home on the Spike channel. Like the early Tomb Raider games, the films were designed to make the most out of the formula: attractive woman + high-stakes action setting = hit franchise.
If you revisit the reviews for the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films — which sport a 33 and 43 score, respectively, on Metacritic — the two live-action Tomb Raider films were too reliant on their sexy protagonist and adventure genre tropes. TV Guide wrote of The Cradle of Life as “simply a series of set pieces designed to ensure Angelina Jolie’s status as action-babe pin-up.”
Though the reviews for the films were bad, the games fared slightly better, though most critics expressed pessimism for the future of the series. This review from IGN UK for Tomb Raider: Underworld, the last Tomb Raider game prior to the 2013 reboot, gave the game a 8.5 review score saying, “despite [Tomb Raider Underworld’s] failure to move the series forward, Underworld is still fundamentally an incredibly enjoyable experience.”
Plenty of reviewers seemingly resigned themselves to the status quo of the Tomb Raider series as a fun adventure game, though not necessarily something revolutionary, and especially not when games like Naughty Dog’s Uncharted came along and pushed the envelope for both action-adventure gameplay and cinematic storytelling. The game series formerly joked about as “Dude Raider” was proving that video games could tell stories just as well as the movies.
It’s probably why the Tomb Raider franchise prior to 2013 felt like a quickly deteriorating fossil. When competitors like Nathan Drake were doing everything Tomb Raider was known for, but with more finesse and characters who are more three-dimensional, it was a sign that Lara Croft needed to seriously step up her game.
When Lara Croft’s new look was revealed on the cover of Game Informer magazine in 2011, the first thing anyone noticed was that she was dirty. Caked in mud and blood, the grimy aesthetic would go on to define the character through the reboot. This design wasn’t so much just video game “battle-damage” where clothes are ripped in just the right amount to show a little skin; in fact, you could hardly see any skin under all that grunge.
Instead, her appearance was a mission statement that this new Lara wasn’t a polygon idol, meant to serve as lazy eye-candy while players jumped around a 3D world shooting enemies. She was going to be human dammit, even if she has to bleed to prove it to players — and bleed she did.
Although the character was still attractive (you can probably count “unattractive” female video game protagonists on a single hand), the message was clear: This Lara Croft was a real person, and her journey will be defined by survival. A quick video search of “Lara Croft Tomb Raider Deaths” on YouTube will bring up plenty of results of the myriad, gruesome ways Lara could be killed in the rebooted video game series.
While the boundaries between storytelling and sadism blurred at times when it came to these death scenes, the idea of using pain — and Lara’s overcoming of it — was a quick, effective way to introduce players to the new Lara Croft. Likewise, putting Alicia Vikander’s new Lara Croft in the film series up against real dangers will cement Tomb Raider’s rebranding across the rest of pop culture.
The thing about the new Tomb Raider’s direction isn’t that it’s “dark” or “gritty” in the expected way most modern reboots aim to be. Instead, Crystal Dynamics took a cookie-cutter action heroine — one that’s made up of quips, a saucy British accent, and tight tank-tops — and viscerally revealed her humanity. If it was brutal at times, it was only because the Lara Croft of the past was in such dire need of rehabilitation.
There are still probably people who closely associate Tomb Raider with the busty video game character. The Alicia Vikander-led film has an opportunity to tell a really great Lara Croft story for the non-video game crowd, and the storytelling techniques that proved so successful for the recent video games will surely be an effective way to get the point across to theater goers that this is a new Lara Croft, even if the ferociousness of the tone proves to be gut-wrenching at first.
Tomb Raider hits theaters March 16, 2018.