Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
Lara Croft is 22 years old as a video game character. Little more than a female Indiana Jones, the series leaned into the supernatural elements and made Lara independently wealthy to remove any of Indy’s pretenses to responsibility. As the graphical fidelity improved and polygons and pixels shrank and multiplied, Miss Croft sadly fell victim to the Uncanny Valley; a phenomenon whereby characters approximating humanity go from being cute and charismatic when they are poor mimics to extraordinarily unsettling when they are close but not quite there. The male gaze is a powerful force, however, and Lara Croft has remained a gaming icon, spawning two Angelina Jolie vehicles thanks to the character’s place in history as a cartoon sex symbol alongside Betty Boop, Jessica Rabbit, and arguably Lola Bunny. In 2013, however, the series was rebooted by a different studio. This Lara was younger, inexperienced at raiding, and the outfits were marginally less skimpy. She also got horrifically injured and died in agony an awful lot. The reboot also had a slight tendency of forcing Lara to wriggle through tight spaces during which the camera would linger a little too lovingly on our heroine’s… assets. A surprise to everyone the game itself was fun to play and the storyline was affecting and engaging. A well-received sequel was soon on the way and it was a surprise to no one that a feature film adaptation was soon underway.
The plot of a modern Lara Croft game is fairly simple. After the mysterious but tragic death of her father Lara is left with nothing but her family fortune, her family mansion, and an upper-class education in all of the skills she would ever need to be a swashbuckling archaeologist. After stumbling upon one of her late patriarch’s unfinished quests, Lara decides to investigate. At first in doubt of the supernatural and mystical beliefs her Father espouses in his notes about the ancient and powerful MacGuffin, Lara soon discovers she’s not the only one seeking answers and comes into conflict with the sinister and mysterious Trinity organization, a kind of Illuminati/Opus Dei/Templars. Lara solves some puzzles, jumps and climbs through various tombs and environments, and shoots a ridiculous number of mercenaries. Ultimately Lara does, despite her doubts, discover that her dead daddy was Right All Along™ about the MacGuffin and Trinity is ultimately defeated through a combination of gumption and hubris. The MacGuffin itself ends up either destroyed or lost forever. It’s a perfectly serviceable plot that’s usually rounded out by an interesting cast of characters, fantastic spectacle, and an enduring mystery to unravel. The 2018 film rips most of its plot straight from the 2013 game but makes a number of significant changes. These were enough to make fans pine for the actual experience of playing the 8+ hour game instead of sitting through the two-hour movie. Personally, I felt the film was fine and there was one interesting nugget that is at the very least worth discussing. Spoilers do follow.
Firstly, Lara (Alicia Vikander) begins the film living paycheck to paycheck refusing to inherit her father’s fortune because doing so would literally force her to sign a statement admitting that Richard Croft (Dominic West) is dead. She takes out the impotent rage she feels through equally impotent boxing matches where she fails to complete and then fails to escape from a chokehold. After displaying charm, spunk, and wits Lara is left with no choice but to admit that after seven long years it’s time for her to move on. However, an overeager executor of her Father’s will reveals a puzzle box intended for Lara moments before she signs the document. Lara solves the box and the clues it contains and leaves without signing. She uncovers her father’s secret research room, sells a trinket for cash, and dashes off to Hong Kong with a clue.
The second change is that Lara goes it alone. In the videogame, Lara is part of a large expedition involving her father figure: a close family friend and former Royal Marine, as well as several friends and colleagues who eventually depend on Lara to rescue them and provide her with comfort, knowledge, and tools in her times of need. In the film, it’s merely her and the son of the sailor who disappeared along with her father somewhere in The Devil’s Sea off the coast of Japan. Lou Ren (Daniel Wu) is a fine character but a poor replacement for the entire cast featured in the game. On its own though it’s admirable and lends the film a modern take on the wry The Mummy (1999) style banter we’ve come to expect in our action-adventure films.
The third change is that Lara’s father is still alive! Lara is captured by mercenaries soon after being shipwrecked on the island of Yamatai. She’s interrogated by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) but soon escapes. After a series of death-defying stunts involving a WWII-era plane and a waterfall Lara is forced to commit her first murder by drowning the mercenary sent to track her down in a muddy puddle during a life or death struggle. Lara is still reeling from having crossed this new threshold when she spots a mysterious figure in the gloom and gives chase. Lo and behold the figure turns out to be her father who even Vogel seems to think is dead, having told Lara earlier that he killed her father himself nearly seven years ago.
There’s some interesting character work happening here. Vogel is a company man who has been stranded on the island just like everyone else until he locates the ancient tomb of the Death Queen Himiko. Queen Himiko is a mytho-historical figure of Ancient Japan identified primarily from Chinese sources and vaguely associated with magic. Writers seized upon it in the post-war years and it’s become a stock legend like Atlantis, Shangri-La, or the Holy Grail. Patina, a paper-thin front for Trinity that Vogel works for, has been excavating the island for years searching vein for Himiko’s legendary tomb. Lara’s father has been monitoring their progress and helping to lead them astray for the past seven years out of the belief that opening Himiko’s tomb would doom the world. Unfortunately, Lara has just delivered her fathers notes directly to Vogel who has successfully uncovered the tomb entrance. Not willing to go down without a fight, Lara heads off to rescue Ren and stop Vogel with a bow and arrows from her father’s cave.
Goggins brings Vogel to life with a minimum of dialogue. While West’s Richard Croft will simply not shut up, Vogel gives orders without saying a word. In the video-game this character was Mathias, a cult-leader attempting to resurrect Himiko by transferring her soul into a sacrificial body. In the film, he’s just some mercenary who’s obsession and ruthlessness are born from a desire to finish his task so he can leave the island and return to his family. In the game, Mathias had been stranded since the early 80s, but in the film it’s only been seven years and his group is apparently continuously resupplied with fresh food, equipment, and slave labour. While Mathias began his cult as a means to survive and escape he has also developed an absurd and twisted evil villain philosophy. Vogel is a much more straightforward character, and infinitely more bearable.
Lara initiates a slave rebellion and Lou Ren leads the slaves to safety. Lara’s father is held hostage by Vogel who forces Lara to lead him into and through the tomb. After some National Treasure (2004) puzzles, including a particularly culturally myopic one involving colours, Lara, Richard, Vogel, and two thugs end up next to Himiko’s coffin. The two thugs pop the seal and Himiko’s perfectly preserved flesh dissolves instantly upon contact with the air. Vogel orders the guards to lift Himiko out so they can transport her off the island but soon after touching her one of the guards starts to dissolve and squirm and scream as his hands and face turn black.
Tomb Raider (2018) took a trick from the genre wheelhouse which is that despite the rumours there is a mundane explanation after all. This has been seen before in, strangely enough, the heavily Tomb-Raider inspired Uncharted video game series where supernatural elements are routinely boiled down to exaggerated legends based on hallucinations or viruses. The legends Richard Croft had uncovered about Queen Himiko described her as a practitioner of black magic who brought death to anything she touched. Rivers ran red with blood in her wake and ultimately her own generals captured and buried her to spare the world. The inside of Himiko’s tomb, however, tells a different story. Himiko was a carrier, but immune to, a virulent plague. In order to save her people she chose to sail to the remote island of Yamatai where she sacrificed herself and anyone else in her retinue who might have been infected. It clearly worked. There’s actually something worth digging into here.
You see, Lara’s father talks about sacrifice a great deal. He never meant to abandon his daughter. He tried desperately to communicate to her the weight of the responsibility he felt that required him to stop Trinity from finding Himiko. He describes the day he decided to stop trying to escape the island as the hardest decision of his entire life. Although the film doesn’t give too much voice to this from Lara’s perspective none of that mattered, she just wanted her father to come home, or not leave in the first place. Just as Queen Himiko’s noble sacrifice eventually painted her as an evil villain so to did Richard Croft’s sacrifice paint him as a crappy father. Intentions are very hard to communicate and all the nice thoughts inside of our heads mean nothing to our loved ones or to history if they aren’t reflected in our actions.
The infected man goes on a rampage and is shot down by Vogel. Vogel successfully clips a finger from Queen Himiko and stores it safely in a ziploc baggie in his breast pocket. There’s another shootout, Vogel runs for it, and Lara takes down the last thug. Those of you disappointed earlier by the absence of a supernatural element should be pleased to note that the infected man rises from the dead at this point and begins attacking Richard Croft. Zombies might not exactly be limited to Fantasy anymore, but they definitely defy the laws of nature. Of course Richard Croft is infected and decides to light some fuses and blow up the tomb while Lara chases after Vogel. Tomb Raider is a franchise and if there’s one thing all franchises have in common, it’s dead parents. It’s exciting and different that father and daughter were reunited but only one Croft was ever coming home from this one, and it’s the one who looks good in a tank top.
Lara probably kills Vogel by, unnecessarily, shoving Himiko’s finger in his mouth and then kicking him off a cliff. The tomb explodes, Lara crawls out, and she and Ren hijack the Trinity helicopter to fly everyone back home. All’s well that ends well. As far as I could tell there’s no real tease for a sequel except that old chestnut of the stepmother/secretary being secretly pulling the strings at Trinity. Common fodder from the Tomb Raider is a close family friend or loved one secretly betraying Lara. In this case it appears Richard’s disappearance and death was orchestrated by Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) who then waited patiently for seven years so that Lara could sign power of attorney to her. I’m not clear on her scheme either, though I doubt anyone is. Lara has an entirely new demeanor after returning from her adventure. I’m not sure when in sequence it was shot but Vikander, who so far has been doing a picture perfect impersonation of Lara from the game (with some minor changes before the island) seems to be channeling Jolie once she dons the leather jacket toward the end. The reality of her father’s death has apparently washed over her like water off a duck’s back and she’s ready to begin adventuring and avenging once again. Unfortunately, initial critical and audience reaction to the film has put a damper on those further exploits. This reviewer would assuredly be down for more pseudo-archaeological action-adventure on the big screen. After all, here at Porkchop we’re still waiting on National Treasure 3 and 4 and Indy number 5.