This film could be called “white woman’s burden.” It mirrors social progress in a number of ways, and in others shows how far we still have to go, especially in this genre. I haven’t seen the original Angelina Jolie version of Tomb Raider, and I don’t play the Lara Croft video games, so I’m coming to this review as an outsider. My husband likes blockbuster adventure movies and superhero movies and I often do too. This one seemed like a blend of Batman and Wonder Woman with a little Isak Dinesen thrown in.
A real character?
Alicia Vikander is compelling in the lead role and is fun to watch. While that is certainly progress from Lara Croft’s origins as a character so top-heavy you wonder how she could possibly haul that chest out of bed, let alone up the side of a cliff, it’s a rather low bar to clear.
This film starts out appearing to give her a genuine character arc. She is shown full of braggadocio and naiveté in equal measure. That she’s realistically tough in the boxing ring and fast on a bike make some of her later stunts a little less Mary-Sue-ish. And it makes sense that a poor little rich girl with more bravery than sense would get taken advantage of by muggers in Hong Kong.
But the other characters, especially the men, are disappointing. Lu Ren, who takes Lara by boat to the remote island where their fathers both disappeared, could be a much more multifaceted character than he is. He too has lost his father in mysterious circumstances and is apparently suffering from depression and alcoholism. He nonetheless survives a disastrous shipwreck, shrugs off being shot in the shoulder, and bounces back from a direct blow to the face to become a handy sidekick and helper when Lara needs him most. He spends most of the film taking this sort of abuse, sometimes for laughs. Daniel Wu, who plays Lu Ren, is a charismatic, famous actor in China, and deserves better. Some actual chemistry between these two characters would have gone a long way.
Her father, Richard Croft, starts out more promising. Appearing to have lost his fragile grip on reality, at first he thinks he is hallucinating when he sees Lara on the island. But the flashbacks that show their relationship are saccharine-sweet and confusing in their timeline. The camera lingers on a goodbye scene between Richard a roughly 8-year-old Lara, to the point that it makes you think that that must have been when he disappeared. Which would make the current Lara all of 16 . . . but wait . . . she’s really 21. When teenage Lara finally shows up in the final flashback, it’s redundant.
Her relationship with her father seems to consist solely of his leaving and promising to come back. And surely an eccentric, slightly mad, grief-stricken billionaire titan of industry could have come up with a better nickname for his daughter than “Sprout.” I was reminded for some reason of an underwhelming scene between a young Tony Stark and his father. Superhero movies are obsessed with parents, particularly fathers, yet they never seem to understand, or be able to dramatize, what kids really need from these figures.
Several times during the movie, it is hinted that Richard might actually be mad, or at least that his mental health has been compromised by grief and isolation. It is further suggested that Lara herself is skeptical about her father’s quest but blinded by her love and respect for him. That she shares this skepticism with Lu Ren and with the antagonist, Mathias Vogel, could have made for some gripping psychological mind games as the legends of Himiko are explored during the climax. But this opportunity too is squandered.
The fruits of privilege
This iteration of Tomb Raider proves that women can be believable, relatable action heroes, something that was actually in question 30 years ago. But this female hero has only gotten as far as Bruce Wayne and Charles Xavier before her. A rich, privileged white person uses the fruits of that privilege to fight villains that look like herself and grapple with the ugly legacy of colonialism. The modern Lara Croft is a breakthrough character for white women, maybe, but not for the majority of the human race.
This movie, thankfully, doesn’t take itself all that seriously. This is what saves it from being a self-important mess. At one point, as Lara’s situation gets even more dire, she looks at the camera and says “Really?”
We would all do well to watch this film in that spirit.
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