The fact that I’ve never played a single video game in my life but know who Lara Croft is (and can immediately picture her various iterations) is indicative of her popularity as a pop culture icon. She was first introduced in 1996 as a character in the video game Tomb Raider, and has since been the subject of countless spin-offs, comic books, and two feature films (starring Angelina Jolie in the titular role). The last of these came out in 2003, which in Hollywood terms means that we’re long overdue for a reboot.
Going into this latest version of Tomb Raider, directed by Roar Uthaug and starring Alicia VIkander, the two things I knew about Lara Croft were that a) she is some sort of archaeologist, and b) she is famously busty, a fact that once made her the object of many a teenage boys’ affections. (I still remember the boys at my Christian middle school using their computer free time” to look up images of her, declaring, “She’s the hottest woman in the world,” an opinion I regarded with disdain and no small amount of jealousy).
Which is all to say that in my mind, Lara Croft was always for the boys. So I was extremely excited when it was announced that Vikander would be the next woman to fill Ms. Croft’s combat boots. Not only has she proved to be a talented actress (she won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 2016 for her role in The Danish Girl), but she’s decidedly un-busty, and doesn’t look like her proportions were sketched by the imagination of a 14-year old boy.
Vikander’s Lara Croft is scrappy and no-nonsense; despite her aristocratic upbringing, she skipped college, works as a bike courier to pay the bills, and practices MMA in her free-time. Other than the fact that her mysterious “Lord Richard” of a father disappeared seven years ago (played in cheesy, desaturated flashbacks by Dominic West), her life seems fairly normal. That is, until she’s summoned by her guardian (Kirsten Scott Thomas) to claim the inheritance her father left for her. She’s about to sign away control of his ancestral estate and all of his assets when she realizes that one of the tokens he left for her—a sort of ancient Japanese Rubix cube—is actually a message, which leads her not only to his secret lair of research (a cluttered office located under a crypt, naturally) but points her to the tomb of Himiko, the ancient killer goddess her father was studying. Blessedly, and unlike many young cinematic heroes these days, these revelations don’t lead to tortured questions about duty and identity. Instead, she scrapes together some funds, heads to Japan, and finds a boat to take her to her father’s last known whereabouts.
Much of the plot and the action in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider are inspired by, if not straight-up borrowed from Indiana Jones. This isn’t so much a criticism as it is an observation; just about every adventure movie since, especially those that take place in exotic locales, have done the same. (If you’re going to borrow, might as well borrow from the best.) There are cryptic codes, pesky booby traps, and many ancient-but-mechanically-advanced moving stone doors/walls/floors. There’s a smarmy and power-hungry bad guy (Walton Goggins) who wants to unearth historical artifacts only for his own benefit, and disposable henchman who get skewered/sliced/decapitated. There’s even an epic shriveling scene, a la Raiders of the Lost Arc.
But what keeps the film from fading into utter forget-ability is Vikander as this particular version of Lara Croft. If you’re sick of hearing about how nuanced portrayals of women or people of color matter, even in mediocre films, then tune out now, because I’m about to say it again. Much to my own surprise, I really enjoyed Tomb Raider, and here’s why: unlike many other films of this genre (and by that I mean PG-13 popcorn fair), its creators refrain from burdening Lara with characteristics that are often a required package deal for action movies daring to feature a female protagonist—qualities that Hollywood has grown convinced we need in order to care.
There are no slow-mo pans or ogling glimpses of Vikander’s lithe frame (this includes pervy glances or comments from any of the men in the film, bad guys included.) No one makes rapey passes at her, her shirt doesn’t get strategically ripped to reveal taut abs, and there are no indulgent scenes added as a mere excuse for her to get dolled up. She has no love interest, only a cranky, drunken, ship-captain-of-a partner (Daniel Wu), proving that in times of danger a loyal buddy is worth more than a sexy one-night stand. And not once do the writers capitalize on any of her vulnerabilities or struggles for the sake of comedic relief. (No scenes of “Haha, she’s exasperated! How adorable!” Or “Oh, she’s pissed! What’s a sassy one!”)
Case in point: in one scene, a (male) character says suggestively to Lara, “Some men like dangerous women,” to which she retorts “Some men are foolish,” and walks away. I’ve grown depressingly accustomed to most sassy retorts delivered less as a shut down, and more as a challenging “come hither,” so to hear her say “Back off”—and mean it—made an impact. The fact is, each of these seemingly harmless tropes are a form of objectification or minimization, be that physical, emotional, or social, and I didn’t realize how sick of them I’d grown until (praise be!) they weren’t there. I’ve already seen critical hot takes warning that this new Lara Croft is “not a feminist role model”, calling out missed opportunities. But the importance of the absence of these aforementioned cliches should not be overlooked; I think it does almost as much good as the presence of any overtly “woke” feminism. Sexism and misogyny are sneaky and insidious, so I’m all for waging a war equally as subtle.
Never for a moment does Lara act surprised by her own strengths or skill-set; she’s not kick-ass despite being a woman, she’s kickass because she’s a woman. Vikander, a former ballet dancer, sports the lean but muscular physique of a rock climber, and believably thrives in a dangerous physical environment, using a combination of balance, flexibility, and agility. These athletic qualities, paired with character traits like humility, level-headedness, and a refreshing clarity of purpose, result in a female character who is, above all, capable. I only wish this depiction wasn’t so rare: to see a woman being supported by her body, rather than betrayed by it, someone who has confidence in her own instincts, but never succumbs to the pitfalls of ego.
I left the theater in the mood to do push-ups, envious of Vikander’s strong arms. Not because of how good they looked or who they might attract, but because of how useful they were. Afterall, you never know when you might find yourself dangling over a waterfall, with nothing but your own strength to pull you back to solid ground.