Letting Lara Down

I was pretty excited for the Tomb Raider movie that came out a couple weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the game it was based on, the Tomb Raider reboot that came out in 2013. The game was an origin story for Lara Croft, one that gameplay-wise took cues from the Uncharted series it had partially inspired but then been eclipsed by. One thing I really liked about the game was how it made Lara less of a sex object. Gone were the catsuits, short shorts, and crop tops; in were the khakis and tank top (it mayn’t sound like much on paper, but the difference is marked). In addition, the game turned Lara into a survivor; shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she hunts for food, searches for her friends, fights bad guys, and uncovers a mystery. If the movie could capture that then we were in for a ride.

And, well, it kinda does, but more than anything the adaptation really plays down its women. Which is as frustrating as it is odd.

Heads up, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of plot here, so spoilers abound as we dig around.

Let’s talk Lara, since she is, after all, our protagonist. In the film, she’s a down-on-her-luck heiress who can’t receive her fortune because she refuses to sign the papers confirming her father is dead. She’s a courier struggling to make ends meet who only ends up going on her adventure when circumstances force her to her inheritance and the discovery of her dad’s research into the mythical island of Yamatai. There’s nothing quite bad here (except that pacing-wise this takes up a solid third of the movie); it’s honestly fairly typical as far as hero stories go and all that. But it really does the Lara of the 2013 video game a disservice.

Lara, in the game, is an archeological grad student; so right of the bat Lara is presented as being both intelligent and educated. She’s clued in on the myth of Yamatai by her college friend  Sam Nishimura, who herself is a descendant of the Yamatai people. Lara’s subsequent research convinces the Nishimura family to fund an expedition looking for Yamatai and to find the fate of its mysterious Sun-Queen, Himiko. In the game’s version of events Lara is given a lot more agency in the story. The expedition to Yamatai is of her own design, not something she takes on from her father. So not only is Lara an archeologist by trade, but she’s one competent enough to make an expedition happen. You could argue that the movie makes her more relatable, but Indiana Jones is a university professor and no one says he’s unrelatable.

Within the different backstories is a key difference: Sam. In the movie, Yamatai is something Lara investigates because of her father. The game positions it as something she’s into and found out about because of a (female) friend. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a young woman going on a quest to find her father (heck, it’s a trope I’m fond of), but the game’s plot both shows us a Lara with more agency and offers a version of events where Lara’s quest doesn’t revolve around a male character, rather displaying the friendship between two women.

And without Sam, we’re also without a lot of what makes Himiko interesting. In the movie, she’s a long-dead queen with a disease that, when infected, makes people disintegrate, and so was sequestered away on Yamatai. The Himiko of the game, however, was a supernatural queen who ruled Yamatai with an iron fist, transferring her soul into younger bodies to gain a sort of immortality. When a rogue successor took her own life rather than be a host, Himiko was trapped in her body and her kingdom declined. Along comes Sam centuries later, and Mathias (who’s the main antagonist in both versions) wants to offer her up as a new host. So it’s up to Lara to save the day. Once again, the game, by being a little more over the top, has a narrative with a lot more women doing stuff. Himiko isn’t Plague Victim Zero, she’s an immortal queen who was thwarted by a brave young woman. The present day sees Lara saving her best friend and putting to rest a vengeful, weather-controlling spirit. In the movie it’s Lara’s father who, once infected, blows up himself and Himiko’s remains. Lara still stops Mathias in the movie, but she’s given one less thing to do.

Look, the movie’s flaws are plenty and they mostly fall into the realm of plotting and structure. But the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise offered a new vision of Lara Croft and her mythos, one that featured a kickass Lara that was surrounded by other women of note. The film offers a perfectly fine Lara, but she’s a far cry from the one in the game. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see a movie take a narrative that’s so female driven and, well, take away its women’s agency. The source material was so rich; had so much going for it. And yet. Here we are. A decent enough strong female protagonist who could have been so much more.

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