Why ‘TOMB RAIDER’ is important for cinema’s next generation of ‘strong female characters’

Alicia Vikander in TOMB RAIDER. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Over the past few years, we’ve seen many a “strong female character” grace the silver screen – particularly in the action genre. Marvel heroines like Valkyrie, Black Widow, Peggy Carter, Gamora and Pepper Potts showed audiences that women can be dynamic beings. WONDER WOMAN gave us a fearless femme to emulate. ATOMIC BLONDE bequeathed us with a scrappy fighter who could mix it up just as well as John Wick. And let’s also not forget about the women at the heart of THE LAST JEDI. The descriptor has become a shorthand in scripts and Hollywood pitch meetings when describing bad-ass female heroes, but it takes a keen eye and ear to authentically capture its essence. Director Roar Uthaug, along with actress Alicia Vikander and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, have done so with TOMB RAIDER. This decade’s cinematic iteration of Lara Croft is a heroine for the next generation, fully capable, kick-ass and never over-sexualized. She’s the entire package – which not only important for the genre, but for cinema in general.

The film, inspired by the 2013 reboot of the video game series (which incidentally is the highest seller in the franchise’s history), shows a vastly different side of Lara Croft than we saw in the Angelina Jolie-fronted films. Instead of being a high-tech rich girl who was all about gadgetry, guns and rebelling against the patriarchy’s desire to confine her to flowy spring dresses, this new version is far more realistic in look and feel. 2018’s Lara Croft (played by Alicia Vikander) is an average young woman, reticent to step into her family’s fortune as it would mean declaring her long-lost father (Dominic West) dead. She’s without much aim and purpose other than just scraping by at her bike courier gig to make rent. That is, until she learns her father may still be alive, perhaps trapped on a mysterious island housing an entombed mythological demon spirit. Armed with little more than her indomitable spirit, agile mind and conviction, her call to adventure (a coming-of-age of sorts) begins.

Where the film finds most of its success is within the construction of the character herself. Uthaug avoids the “male gaze” when it comes to showcasing Lara’s physical attributes. [Side note: Her abs will launch a million gym memberships!] Vikander wows in the role, infusing the character with magnetic charm, vulnerability and pathos – qualities not usually found in films based on video games. Her “superhero” journey is about unleashing her innate innovative, adventurous spirit laid dormant until now. The filmmakers allow our beloved protagonist to get her hands literally and figuratively dirty. She’s susceptible to natural elements that arise, getting tossed around like a rag doll by waves and, later, punctured by tree branches in a daring, impromptu parachute escape from a rusty airplane dangling on a waterfall’s edge. You know, your average weekend excursion.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) dangles precariously off the wing of a rusty airplane in TOMB RAIDER. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

And this Lara’s not impervious to pain either. Her bruises, scratches and wounds don’t automatically heal – they are carried over from each sequence, at times, compromising her physicality. Those who’ve played the video game will delight in seeing Easter Eggs parceled throughout. When she fights, she’s forced to fight to the death, proving there’s nothing “safe” about her character. After she kills one of Vogel’s henchmen, there’s a brief moment in which we see her pause to take stock of what’s happened. This is a rarity to see this angle explored in a movie of this ilk. More like this please!

“Daddy issues” are there, of course, but this time, they’re incorporated fluidly. There’s no escaping it, but these filmmakers demonstrate a way to embrace it. They found a way into her psyche that instantly makes audiences connect. While this facet of Lara’s personality is part and parcel to her origin story, it serves a greater purpose in this film. Her estrangement, or rather abandonment, by her workaholic father is never the sole trait that defines her journey. Both of these characters are driven by a similar yearning of exploration and discovery. This leads to an impactful, satisfying understanding between father and daughter that strengthens their bond even further.

Father-daughter relationships intertwine even more once we meet Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), a company man desperate to find the treasure so he can return to his daughters. Not only does this provide a moral conundrum for Lara (since she’s the product of an absentee father herself), but it also gives the villain resonance, fleshing him out from a one-dimensional baddie. Success, ego and greed called Mathias to the island, and that thirst stands to be quashed once Lara arrives. However, this cleverly defined adversarial connection provides a surprising amount of thought-provoking drama.

All this build-up makes Lara’s third-act transformational actions so much fun, because by then, you’re rooting for her to succeed. This is also where the filmmakers recreate the video gameplay swiftly and sufficiently. It’s where the film is at its most electric.

There’s something about seeing this “strong female character” push her mental and physical capabilities that’s genuinely thrilling and empowering. We finally have a worthy cinematic avatar!

TOMB RAIDER opens on March 16.

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