In the last five years, Lara Croft has been rebooted twice. First, in 2013, with the TOMB RAIDER video game and now, in 2018, with the TOMB RAIDER movie.

Both have relied heavily on the action-based theme of “surviving” for advertising — much to their disservice, I’d argue. And not only is it a disservice to the stories, but I fear it also hurts Lara Croft’s reimagining.

What Does It Mean To Survive?

As I walked into the theater on opening day to see TOMB RAIDER, I was pumped. To the person in charge of marketing, I give the highest praise. Their choice of covering Destiny Child’s “Survivor” was fantastic. That’s because, just like I felt with the reboot video game, I was primed to see a story of survival. I was humming the refrain as I locked my bike outside of the theater.

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That’s because I love survival stories. I am young enough (or old enough) to remember the brief Worst-Case Survival Guide book craze. I watched Bear Grylls, and even Les Stroud’s SURVIVORMAN on TV. In these kinds of situations, I always wondered how I would do.

Would I have the guts — the guile — to summon my inner strength and beat backs the unyielding forces of nature? More importantly, would tragedy defeat me, or would I rise above my perceived limitations and survive? It’s a compelling, universal question.

Similarly, advertisements involving Lara Croft’s reboot call upon almost identical themes. Here is the Amazon product description for the 2013 video game:

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And now, in 2018, here’s the Amazon product description for the Lara Croft Barbie doll (a suitable film proxy):

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The official TOMB RAIDER Lara Croft Barbie Doll. Climbing axe included; mercenary/cultist skulls sold separately. Image courtesy of Mattel.

Sounds like a great survival story on both fronts, right? Yamatai, the “mythical island” of both stories, sounds like a scary place. That’s the perfect antagonist. Lara Croft is just an ordinary London city girl, inexperienced and out of her element. She has room to grow as a protagonist. Check. Oh — and a secret, mythical tomb? Action/adventure. What better way set up a story of survival?

The TOMB RAIDER Survival Story Is Actually About Surviving Enemies

As I walked out of the theater, I felt the same way I did after beating the video game. Did I have a good time with both? Yes. Did I feel I understood Lara Croft’s origin? Sure. But did it feel like a survival story? Let’s break the plot down before I answer that question.

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Both stories start with the transformative event of Lara getting stranded on Yamatai when the Endurance breaks apart. Lara is now in an unfamiliar situation against her will. Activate survivor mode.

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Lara Croft crawls onto Yamatai after the Endurance wrecks. Image courtesy of WBEI and MGM.

Then, the story continues. The inhabitants of the island try to kill or kidnap her. In the game, there’s the crazy dude in the cave (and that evil metal spike) trying to kill Lara. In the movie, it’s Matthias helming Trinity, an ostensibly evil group who will do anything to get to Himiko’s tomb.

Lara then finds her compatriots in jeopardy before needing to escape herself. In the game, the islander cultists kidnap Sam (her best-friend roommate), and Lara barely escapes; in the movie, it’s Lu Ren who is captured, and she escapes via a WWII bomber’s parachute. These events give Lara a new goal: rescue her friends, too.

But then, there’s the transformative event. Lara has to kill. This is a traumatizing moment that shakes her to the core. But next, in both stories, she discovers a mentor. This person gives her the bearings and wherewithal to refocus her mind and start fighting back.

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Lara keeps going despite the nastiness of her ordeal. Image courtesy of Square Enix.

Fighting back takes most of the story until Lara ends up at the climax. Every step closer to that emboldens her to save her friends and survive Yamatai.

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Sounds good on the outside, right?  No major, out-of-order story sins are committed. But is this a survival story? No — I don’t think it is. Survival stories depend on a certain level of reluctance on the protagonist. Survival isn’t so much about surviving as it is in overcoming one’s personal blocks to survival and deciding to carry on.

These personal blocks can be actual obstacles (like people with guns, wolves with teeth) or one’s response to the trauma of survival. Yet no matter what they are, the obstacles to survival need actually to be obstacles for the character. This is where the survival theme falls flat with the movie and the video game, each in their own peculiar way.

The Movie

Lara Croft’s opening scene is with her struggling against an opponent in a mixed-martial arts fight. We see from the beginning that she is a trained fighter, even if she does lose the bought. Later on, she gets into a fox-hunt bicycle race through the streets of London.

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Although that doesn’t quite go as planned, we still see her demonstrate significant skill and handling in a stressful situation. Finally, when she makes it to Hong Kong to charter passage to Yamatai, she successfully evades and neutralizes muggers. In all examples, she’s able to deal with challenging, physical situations.

And that’s before she even gets to the island. On the one hand, all of the crazy stuff Lara pulls off once she’s on Yamatai makes sense. But is it surprising? No. This is an issue. The obstacles put in place to test Lara Croft just give her more experience in skills she already has. The challenges she faces add nothing to her character’s development. And when you go to set up the story to make that expectation — that survival transforms her — it tumbles to the ground with an Alicia Vikander grunt.

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Right before a tough fall, Lara Croft does all she can to hold on. From TOMB RAIDER; image courtesy of WBEI and MGM.

In the theater that day, I nodded my head at each improbable thing she did. Was it cool? Yeah. But by the end, I was convinced that if anyone was to get stranded on a mysterious island I’d want it to be Lara Croft. That’s because I know she’ll come back.

The Video Game

It ended up being the same with the video game, though not for lack of trying. Although the script revealed Lara Croft struggling with the trauma of survival at campfire save-points, the gameplay did not reinforce that story. On the one hand, we have Lara Croft struggling psychologically with her first kill. And then not too long after, we get this scene in the video game:

“I’ll get you bastards!” doesn’t necessarily reinforce the struggles of surviving, particularly with taking human life. Granted, this is an action game that has a built-in progression system. But it didn’t help that that progression came from slaughtering nameless mooks with head-shots from 50 yards off.

Furthermore, it didn’t help that the rewards for killing were the abilities to kill enemies in even more violent ways. Is it necessary for me to know how to lodge a climbing axe into someone’s skull? Is it necessary for me to kick a man to the ground and deposit a round of buckshot into his face?

I’m not the first to notice this, but tonal dissonance levels were high. I wasn’t scared for Lara Croft’s survival — I was scared for her enemies. But did I have a bad time with the game? No. But was I worried about Lara Croft surviving? Not particularly. If anything, I was worried more about my own incompetence as a player killing her.

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So yes — for the movie and the video game, the journey was still exciting. However, survival was not a strong theme in either. That’s not to say that the video game and the movie were thematically devoid, however. There was one theme prevalent in both that is much, much stronger.

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When you strip away the action tone, you find sacrifice at the heart of TOMB RAIDER. Lara Croft is a survivor, but becoming one did not happen because of surviving. Her gumption to keep fighting — keep surviving — came from witnessing the sacrifice of others or being willing to sacrifice her own agenda and way of life.

The Video Game Looks At How Lara Croft Reacts To The Sacrifice of Others

One of my favorite dialogue exchanges comes from the TOMB RAIDER video game. Lara Croft just rescued her mentor, Conrad Roth, when she gets a distress beacon from a stranded pilot. Lara wants to rescue the pilot. Roth cautions her:

Lara: I can’t just leave him out there alone! I need to get to him.

Roth: Sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices, Lara. You can’t save everyone.

Lara: I know about sacrifices.

Roth: No, you know about loss. Sacrifice is a choice you make. Loss is a choice made for you.

Although the game bottlenecks that survival choice into killing enemies, it doesn’t mean it destroys that core thematic truth. Lara Croft has to survive the game. Not only does this story promise sequels, but her death means nothing when you can just respawn and try again. But — there’s also a cast of seven others who sailed on the Endurance. People who wouldn’t be on Yamatai if not for Lara. They don’t have to survive.

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In the video game, Lara returns to the shipwrecked Endurance. Here, she grabs a snapshot of her old life — and who she may still lose (Sam, on left). Image courtesy of Square Enix.

And, in fact, three of them don’t (technically four, although this character willingly put another in harm — so he had it coming). In all cases, Lara Croft witnesses them die, each in an act of self-sacrifice to keep her alive. This knowledge becomes a terrible burden for her to bear.

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In an action game when you’re a superhuman killing machine, I commend the creators for this choice. They found a way to destroy Lara Croft without killing her. And when she rebounds from the sacrifices she witnesses all around her, she is stronger for it.

In the Movie — Understanding Sacrifice Shapes the Characters

Although I wouldn’t call sacrifice the theme of the movie, it is the tie that binds the named characters together. By becoming a motif, therefore, the film becomes a commentary on the effects of sacrifice. More specifically, it becomes a tale of the consequence of sacrifice on others.

First off, there are the heroes. Both are connected by the sacrifices of their fathers. Richard Croft, the father of Lara Croft, lost his wife when Lara was still young. So, he becomes obsessed with bringing her back by searching for supernatural remedies for death.

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The lost tomb of Himiko on Yamatai became his solution. He hires Lu Ren’s father (also Lu Ren) to bring him there. Lu Ren Sr., we learn, sacrificed himself to ensure that Trinity didn’t outright kill the slave-laborers on the island (as the movie tells, at least).

Both children inherit the loss of their fathers’ sacrifices. Both of their reactions to that loss get them stuck in life. Lara refuses her inheritance because doing so would be admitting her father is dead; therefore, she skips university, taking odd jobs to support herself. Lu Ren just turns to alcohol. At Yamatai, they get a new respect for why their fathers sacrificed themselves. This gives them the courage to move beyond their loss.

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Lu Ren and Lara Croft engage in aggressive negotiations in TOMB RAIDER. Image courtesy of WBEI and MGM.

In an intriguing twist, sacrifice shapes even the villain, Matthias Vogel. Trinity has kept him on Yamatai for seven years. When he finds Himiko’s tomb, he can return. As such, he’s willing to sacrifice or enslave others to reach that goal. He becomes an intriguing counterpoint to the heroes, a commentary on what obsession can become (especially for Lara).

What has TOMB RAIDER sacrificed by pursuing action?

Yet despite sacrifice being a central theme TOMB RAIDER and the video game could have put in the forefront, both focused instead on the action. And let’s face it — there’s nothing wrong with this. Given a hypothetical situation of opening a door, what would you rather have?

A careful, nuanced examination of the courage needed to enter an unknown situation — or kicking it down with a firm boot, guns blazing? For a video game, I’d rather play the latter; in a blockbuster movie, I wouldn’t mind watching the latter, either. Action is easier to market and sell.

And so both the movie and the game are chock-full of moments to wow the audience. But by doing so, my impression of Lara’s character got sucked dryer than Himiko’s mummy. It’s true — I can say, “Wow — Lara Croft is awesome,” but what do I learn?

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Although sometimes action gets a little hammy. Early in the video game, Lara must outrun a burning aircraft. Image courtesy of Square Enix.

What makes a survival story compelling is not the glitzy ways a character overcomes obstacles but the choices made to survive. Even when those choices are made for the character — as in the movie and the game — it doesn’t really matter. That’s because the story is about seeing a character make meaningful choices consistent with their past actions or experience. This gives a story credence. And it’s from here that tone, theme, and all of that other, wonderful literary mélange originates.

An over-reliance on the action made it hard to connect to Lara and the choices she made. Choices that can inspire the way I approach the much more mundane situations of my life.  I missed the chance of being able to say, “Wow — Lara Croft is awesome. And I can be, too!”

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the end, stories are less about the tone-setting actions a character makes than what choices they face. In seeing how a hero handles a choice, we can apply it to our own lives. When we see how they deal with consequences, we can learn how to avoid their pitfalls, too. In the end, a story must ask itself not only what it wants its audience to feel but what it wants it to learn. Focusing too much on feeling misses the chance to elevate the story to a higher place. And in doing so, the character fails to rise as well.

Lara Croft has a powerful legacy, so neither reboot has sunk her. Indeed, the video game spawned a sequel, and a third is coming out soon. I played the second, and it was fun, but it failed to add anything new to Lara Croft’s character. I really, really hope the third gets it right. As for a sequel to the movie, we’ll have to see. Alicia Vikander understands the nuance of Lara Croft, and I want to see her reprise the role.

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Fortunately, we have the comics (set in the video game continuity). Although they do suffer from the same action-first mindset of the games and movie, there are some notable exceptions. TOMB RAIDER #12 is a great examination of the consequences the reboot game creates. It asks Lara, directly, if she killed to survive Yamatai — or if she killed because she enjoyed it. TOMB RAIDER: A SURVIVOR’S CRUSADE, a four-issue mini-series, wraps up on April 11. This series makes Lara face the consequences of her vendetta against Trinity.

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From TOMB RAIDER #12, Lara talks with her friend, Sam, about her hesitations with acting. Yes — acting. Read to find out why. Image courtesy of Dark Horse Comics.

There is hope. Lara Croft is a survivor who gets stronger through her missteps — and so do stories.

So in the end, I hope the future is bright for Lara Croft. Though her reboots have flaws, they at least give obvious room to improve. Something could be said that the reboot of Lara Croft is in itself an improvement on the past — what Lara Croft meant and means to feminism — but that is an article for another time.

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Survival isn’t always a glorious ordeal. Lara Croft knows this well — and I think the creators do, too. Image courtesy of Square Enix.

Just like a botched landing, both TOMB RAIDER reboots are imperfect (and sometimes painful). Yet even still, I would like to see the holders of Lara Croft’s intellectual property keep working with this iteration. There is so much potential and depth in Lara Croft’s character. I will not stop rooting for her to get the stories she deserves.

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