Background Noise: The Futility of Casting Lara Croft: Missing The Point of Tomb Raider
Based on the popular video games series, hopes are high the new film will bring a fresh take on the iconic character with an exciting name tapped to play the lead, but what Hollywood doesn’t understand and what gamers do is that actually, it doesn’t really matter.
Originally published Sept, 2016, I thought it time to revisit this story as the release date (March 16) approaches. To start, Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider video games have given me some of the greatest game experiences and memories of my long video gaming life. I’ve played every major console and PC Tomb Raider title released over the last twenty years, with these often challenging, sometimes frustrating, always entertaining games taking up hundreds of hours of my time. And I don’t regret a single one. Ms Croft, whose earliest iterations was a leggy, buxom adventurer had me and my friends up into wee hours as we tried to solve puzzles and defeat waves of enemies. And while the industry continuously and relentlessly sold her off as a sex symbol, us true gamers loved her not because of her proportions but because she never let us down. Unlike scantily clad girls in other games, objectified for their bodies to sell games, we stood in line for Lara adventures because she did something the others could not: she let us be her.
That’s the key to any good game and the reason why the Tomb Raider series is such a success. The most important aspect of gaming is that there is a player in control of the game. We are simply represented in the game by the characters on screen. With the Lara Croft series, the developers created a hero with an edge and backstory that made playing the games an inviting and rewarding experience, and when Lara failed or when Lara succeeded, it was entirely what we did. This is fundamental to any game, and it is crucial in understanding why video game movies almost always fail.
Back in 2001, the casting of sinewy Angelina Jolie was all the talk, many commenting that her shapely figure and headstrong attitude were a perfect fit. Indeed, she was. She starred in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and the 2003 sequel Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and unsurprisingly both films were failures, underperforming and savaged by critics. Interestingly, none of the blame was placed on Jolie, who was in fine form and clearly having some fun with the part. So why the backlash? Both movies were big, loud, unrealistic action-heavy films that just didn’t translate well, even though they tried to duplicate the tone of the games. What was missing? That’s easy. The gamer.
The thing about a good video game is how it pulls a player into the created world. Investment comes from making choices and dealing with consequences, thinking quickly and coping with loss and celebrating victory. This is a crucial element that is missing in film, a non-participatory entertainment that can certainly evoke emotions, but lacks the ability to put the experience in the viewer’s hands. A game does that, and the Tomb Raider series, which has seen tremendous growth from its first titles to now, is one of the more successful action adventure titles to make that work.
No one can blame studios for wanting to make video game-adapted films. The Tomb Raider franchise is especially cinematic with its sweeping epic action pieces, exotic locations and colorful characters. On paper, it’s a win-win. And now, with the very talented Alicia Virkander cast in the titular role, it seems again the possibility for greatness is just within reach. We’re all talking about how in these modern times, she is the perfect actor for the part, and how the film will follow in the footsteps of the latest games, which dialed back on the overt sexualization of the character and concentrated on a more gritty and (mostly) realistic approach. I applaud that and agree Ms Virkander is a solid choice. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter.
When Tomb Raider hits theaters, it will mostly likely make a splash, but in the end, any fan of the character and the games will be let down because for us, we are Lara Croft. All of us, and no movie is ever going to make that work as well as when we have our hands in control and are guiding our favorite female hero into her next adventure.