How the new Tomb Raider fares as a feminist film

I have so many feelings right now. Good feelings and bad feelings.

Tomb Raider has been a gaming staple for me since I was 8, and is one of the few games I fervently follow. This weekend, I went to the theater to see my favorite action hero, Lara Croft, on the big screen once again, played this time by Alicia Vikander.

But as a feminist, no matter how much I want to love this movie, I had high expectations. Hollywood feminism is having a big moment with Wonder Woman, an all-female Ghostbusters, and kick-ass ladies starring in films like Star Wars and Mad Max, and popular TV shows like Game of Thrones and Jessica Jones. So many of them are fantastic pieces that set noteworthy examples of feminism and diversity. And while the bar was set low in terms of Tomb Raider movies, the bar for woman-led films is set high.

Feminism in the Tomb Raider franchise is especially important in my eyes, given the #GamerGate controversy. Gamer culture often demeans, objectifies, and excludes women. Lara was obviously created by men, for men, and is in no way exempt from that. For Tomb Raider and other games featuring female characters, their sexiness was meant to be part of the allure. And though Lara’s always had some feminist traits going for her, she made some notable progress in the latest game reboot in 2013.

If you need some quick background, Tomb Raider (2018) is based off the Tomb Raider (2013) video game, where Lara Croft finds herself on her first adventure on the island of Yumatai. The movie storyline makes some big deviations from the game, but the idea is that she’s thrust into a life-or-death situation when her ship crashes on the island and she (and the crew) are picked up by bad guys.

To see a feminist version of Lara onscreen means a lot of different things, especially when you’re looking at a 25-year backstory of the character, #gamergate, and the #metoo and #timesup movement in Hollywood. Each has different benchmarks, but I’ll talk about the ones I feel are most relevant.

Here are some of the markers I was looking for in this new movie:

1. Real emotions

The 2013 Tomb Raider game storyline was made great by a Lara that players (female players, especially) could connect with. Remembering this is Lara’s first “adventure,” we see her show some real emotions. When she is stabbed through the stomach, she’s horrified. When she loses a friend, she’s distraught. When she first kills a man, she’s stunned.

All of these things make her feel real – and humanizing a female character is rarely done well in the gaming industry. The more we can identify with a character, the less likely we are to objectify her. That’s a big step when a lot of gamer-bros are stepping into Lara’s shoes to experience her story.

2. Lara doesn’t need help

The games have done a great job with this one. Lara rarely accepts help, especially when it comes to physical help. She’s taken notes from an informer or two, had a mentor when she was younger, but never anything that indicates that she is not capable of taking care of herself.

In the new games, especially, Lara is the one who’s doing the saving, even when she feels like she’s in over her head.

3. She should have real relationships

Tomb Raider characters Lara and Sam face each other in a dark outdoor scene, holding hands.
Lara talks to her best friend, Sam, in the Tomb Raider game. // Screenshot via Tomb Raider 2013

Lara’s relationships were emphasized in 2013 Tomb Raider. Lara has a relationship with most of her crew members, even the ones she doesn’t like. The characters were diverse in demographics and character (another feminist marker), which was refreshing in and of itself.

In the group, we see Sam, Lara’s best friend, who ends up kidnapped by the evil Mathias. While Sam is pretty much a damsel-in-distress, she and Lara share some moments before the crash that give us a glimpse of their friendship and Sam’s playful foil to Lara’s moodiness.

Even amidst chaos, we see the characters develop and grow together (those who survive, at least). The player’s ability to connect to the characters drives interest more so than gruesome deaths and action, another, less apparent feminist trait that can be as easily attributed to story development. In the end, the real relationships develop empathy between player and character, instead of tough-acting action characters who are often devoid of it.

4. Lara should be dressed practically

Left, the 2013 game version of Lara draws a bow and arrow, while Vikander's similarly styled Lara does the same on the right.
Lara in Tomb Raider 2013 (left) and Alicia Vikander as Lara (right) in the Tomb Raider movie. // Image via IGN

This is probably the most obvious feminist trait for most viewers/gamers: She should be more than a sex object. Lara has traditionally worn short-shorts, a fitted tank over a disproportionately large bosom, huge red lips, and long hair. Tomb Raider 2013 changed her classic outfit into something reasonable: cargo pants, a layered tank, and human body proportions. Though she’s still objectively attractive, she’s taken a big step out of the male gaze and is shown as you might expect a tough young adventurer to look.

Vikander’s Lara is nearly a direct copy of 2013 Lara, and I, along with many fans, was excited to see her makeover brought to life.

5. She should not be sexualized by other characters

To my knowledge, the gameplay has not explicitly objectified Lara throughout the years, though the marketers and gamers definitely did. But making a Tomb Raider movie, post #metoo, I wanted to see her sexuality left well out of the picture.

6. There should be women villains

Screenshot from Tomb Raider 2013 gameplay. Three heavily-armored men toting weapons look down threateningly through face masks and helmets.
The 2013 game had the decency of calling its army of burly men a “brotherhood,” but it’d be nice to see some hench-women and people of color as bad “guys” too.

This isn’t brought up much, but it truly bothers me. If we’re going with the idea that women and men are equal, we shouldn’t be afraid to make women henchmen. Some of the Tomb Raider games have a female lead as the big-boss, which is great. We need more of that. But we also need more of the disposable henchmen to be women.

Excluding them is akin to the trope that men should “protect” women. Even if that’s totally not what’s happening when it comes to Lara, it makes a difference that she’s the only one even there.

Side-note: I do understand that women-against-women violence is anti-feminist, but so is all violence, really. #womenhenchmen #henchwoman #womencanbebadguystoo

 

My overall rating: 3.8/5 feminism stars

Overall, the film does just well enough as far as feminism. I was disappointed in the storyline and character development, which are a bit flimsy but do enough to move the story along. Lara herself seems to be doing better in terms of autonomy, having real emotions, and not giving a show for the male gaze. Here are the scores for my criteria:

1. Real emotions – 3/5

Alicia Vikander nailed it when the script allowed for emotional moments. When she kills for the first time, she’s horrified. The scene is easily one of my favorites, however, it is short lived. Another was when she met with her step-mother to sign the papers confirming her father’s death. And then, again, when she *spoiler alert* finds her father.

My biggest problem here is that she doesn’t really seem to have as much of a range of emotion as 2013 Lara. Where game Lara expressed excitement and awe when she discovered beautiful mountain ranges or old tombs, this Lara doesn’t seem to care much. She’s wary and vulnerable, but it’s not enough to make her feel truly human. In all, there’s a ton of source material on which to build Lara’s character, but it wasn’t utilized.

2. Lara doesn’t need help – 4/5

Lara spends most of the movie calling her own shots. She finds her father’s secret office on her own, gets money for the trip on her own, convinces her soon-to-be-friend Lu Ren (played by Daniel Wu) to take her to the island, and pretty much figures out how to get into the tomb on her own.

She does get a bit of help from Lu Ren, which enables her to escape. The more problematic part, in my eyes, was *SPOILER ALERT* the reappearance of her father, who helped her patch up her wound and then she took his bow and arrow to get back to fighting. It was definitely more satisfying when Lara climbed a tree to steal the bow off of a dead man, fashioned arrows for herself, then when she was bleeding profusely, she heated up an arrow and seared her wound shut and got right back to fighting. Definitely not realistic, but it allows you to think, if Dad hadn’t been there, she probably would have died from her wound.

3. She should have real relationships – 2/5

After 2013 TR, Lara’s relationships in this movie felt perfunctory. The motivating relationship of the show is Lara’s relationship with her disappeared father, who is presumed dead.

While it’s a fine motivating factor, her relationship with her father falls flat onscreen. Lara’s flashbacks are almost a clinical portrayal of what we’d assume a rich, always-working father and his daughter’s relationship to be. Then later, when they’re *SPOILER* reunited, there’s little chemistry or conversation that convince the viewer that they’re father-daughter, or have much of a relationship at all.

Not only that, but Richard Croft kind of messed up the whole thing. He got *SPOILER* caught and then Lara felt forced to lead the bad guys to the tomb. This relationship weakened the narrative and took some of the spotlight off of Lara’s own journey.

Alicia Vikander and Daniel Wu, as Lu Ren, in Tomb Raider (2018). // Image via Warner Bros
Alicia Vikander and Daniel Wu, as Lu Ren, in Tomb Raider (2018). // Image via Warner Bros

Another missed opportunity: Lu Ren could have been a dynamic friendship for Lara, but the two have too little screen time together. And though they have chemistry on screen, their friendship was a bit forced (let’s not forget they just met and she’s leading him to near-certain death).

4. Lara should be dressed practically – 5/5

Though Vikander’s Lara, like 2013 Lara, was caught off-guard when the ship crashed, she wasn’t wearing short-shorts, and finally has a backpack that isn’t the size of a canteen. Her other outfits in the film were practical, if not modest.

5. She should not be sexualized by other characters – 5/5

2013 TR didn’t sexualize Lara (except for one cringy moment by a bad guy she – thankfully – kills) so I didn’t expect the movie to touch it. Thankfully, I was not disappointed in that aspect. Evil Mathias briefly says something about her being attractive but goes no further. Honestly, evil bad guys are setting better examples than actual men.

6. There should be women villains (or ANY other women) – 0/5

Lara seems to be the only woman on the island. This isn’t surprising, to say the least, but it would have been nice for the bad guys to have some hint of diversity, at least. The movie barely passes the Bechdel Test with one conversation she has with a friend after the opening boxing scene. Given that saving her father took the place of saving her best friend, Sam, in the game storyline, Tomb Raider 2018 definitely could have leaned into a woman-led cast.

 

All that taken into account, Tomb Raider (2018) did well balancing a female lead whose traditional MO is killing everyone in the way to get to an artifact or some shit. There was still a lot I felt the story lacked, namely the plot and character development. But maybe we’re moving into a stage where even bad action movies have feminist morals. I’d be OK with that.

As for Lara herself, it was a step in the right direction. Lara deserves better than the sexualized, campy, shoot-em-ups. Vikander is talented and I believe she made this movie better with her acting alone. She created a version of Lara I can proudly champion and continue to love. Let’s hope next time there are more women included along the way.

 

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Candice Brusuelas