The Lara Croft: Tomb Raider Movies – What Went Wrong?

With cinema screens in need of a female equivalent of Bond or Indy, why couldn’t the iconic Lara Croft get it right on film? Twice?

Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft

Two shots at cinematic success – one: Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001), has a generous budget of $115,000,000 and Con Air’s Simon West in to direct. Two: Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003), a smaller but still heftily budgeted $95,000,000-worth, with Speed and Twisterdirector Jan de Bont helming. Both have modern gaming icon, money maker, and sex symbol Lara Croft as their protagonist, and wild-child-phase Angelina Jolie to render those popular pixels as flesh on film.

The first attempt makes good bank, but is critically slaughtered. The second two years later gets better play from critics, but rakes in less money from moviegoers. Taken together, the Tomb Raider films don’t make for a must-have DVD boxset purchase, or much of a lazy Sunday afternoon cable TV double bill, either. So how does a winning combination of Popular Character + Exciting Actress + Experienced Director(s) = sniffy critics and audience apathy? What went wrong?

At the start of the 2000s, transferring adventuring archaeologist, tomb-raider, and hot-pants wearer Lara Croft from millions of PlayStations (other gaming devices are available) to millions of cinema screens wasn’t much of a gamble. Since the launch of the first Tomb Raider game in 1996, Lara had made lots of money for her developers, gamers were shelling out to lead her through her adventures, and she’d sparked a flurry of think pieces in the national press and magazines, alike.

The games (which – whisper it – weren’t always that great) were known outside of GamesMaster magazine because of Lara’s impact, politically and culturally. She’d been hailed as a sex symbol by the FHM-alike crowd, and hesitantly claimed/discarded/reclaimed as an empowering character by female commentators and fans happy to have another woman kicking butts on gaming consoles. 

Ad – content continues below

1996. It was…a different time.

New players looking back at her blocky body in the 1996 game might raise an eyebrow at the excitement (cough) she inspired back then, but something about Lara Croft as a character captured the cultural imagination, and it didn’t just hinge on the hot pants, or her bra size (though much has been written about both). Objectified, empowered, or somewhere in between, she’d become a brand as recognisable outside of the gaming community as Sonic and Mario, with models signed on as official real-world Laras (Rhona Mitra and Nell McAndrew were some who took on the mantle) to walk among us mortals during publicity drives for the games. She was a star. So where else could such a popular and well-known character go next but to the blockbusters, to film?

Which was the first problem – adapting a game to film. Game-to-film is a genre with a rep so bad it borders on the Uwe Boll, and understandably so. Tabletop gaming brought us 1985’s film adaptation of Clue, a favorite in culty-corners now, but a financial and critical flop when released. And Mario made his misfire in 1993 with Super Mario Bros., a film hated by critics, the paying public, and even star Bob Hoskins himself. The Tomb Raider films weren’t going to be the latest in a proud lineage… and they don’t have an impressive legacy now, either. For example, the Resident Evil film franchise has dragged on despite (not because of) its quality, and Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time thankfully came to an abrupt halt (or hit a wall, you might say) at film one in 2010 following poor reviews.

Super Mario Bros. – not even once.

Each of these four examples of game-to-film have their own unique problems (Clue: a too-2D original universe. Mario: too weird a universe. Evil: messy scripts. PoP: weird and messy white-washing, racist stereotypes, etc. – now isn’t the time), but they all share the same obstacle built in to the genre – asking a previously active audience to be passive.

Ad – content continues below

You enjoyed flinging the Prince from Persian rooftops on your Game Boy? Once he’s leapt to film, he doesn’t need your help to navigate the sandy terrain. You have time to look around his surroundings, take in the storyline he’s been given… you’ll notice very quickly if it’s not particularly interesting. Then there’s Lara, pulled from a series of games that don’t have a continuous canon, whose background, history and surroundings have been rewritten and tweaked with each new version. If the storyline chosen for the film isn’t compelling, her fans won’t want to sit and watch, especially when they can’t help her out of it with a Forward-Square-Circle button mash.

And that’s the obstacle Lara Croft: Tomb Raider couldn’t clear in 2001. The character is good, the leading lady is fantastic, but watching the film again 14 years later, it’s jarring to see a huge star like Jolie slumming it in something so… bizarrely shit. From brain-dead dialogue – while looking at a clock, Lara’s pal Bryce surmises: “It’s a clock” – to clichés like “If I told you, I’d have to kill you”, the script isn’t worthy of the potential the character has, or the performance Jolie gives. 

Bryce: “It’s a clock”. Thanks Bryce.

It isn’t even worthy of Chris Barrie (playing Butler Hillary), and he was in The Brittas Empire. There’s some fun to be had with how vague the Illuminati villains of the film are – “We seek to fulfil an ancient prophecy” Okay, what’s that? “A sacred promise to our ancestors” Right…? – as well as Iain Glen’s poorly-dyed mullet, mascara, and magical travelling Moroccan-style sofas (he has one to flop into almost everywhere he goes). Then there’s the countdown to Lara actually leaving her mansion to explore other locales, which is funny, but frustrating. When the location finally changes, the sets look a lot like Aughra’s place in The Dark Crystal, but cheaper.

Pop quiz time: Set photo from Lara Croft: Tomb Raider or The Dark Crystal?

Less fun are the daddy issues Lara is saddled with – the dream sequences with Jolie’s real father Jon Voigt, much hyped during publicity for the film, are in reality, a drag – as is the feeling that the filmmakers couldn’t quite decide what to do with their leading lady in her first outing.

On the interview trail for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’s release, Jolie described her version of the character as “fierce, and fun, and she loves adventure,” – sounds right – “and she’s very friendly: she’s not out to compete with other people, or men, and she doesn’t have this feminist- she just wants to have a good time”. And there’s the rub, the dichotomy at the centre of Lara Croft in the film (and perhaps, in general) – is she just unintimidating, non-threatening eye-candy, a blow-up doll to dress up in clingy outfits? Or is the violent, gun-toting adventurer allowed to be a capable, fully-realised human being for the audience to root for, not just goggle at?

The first film didn’t seem to have reached a decision on that. Its fumbled and almost shy attempts at objectification, only consisting of some side-boob after a surprisingly tame shower scene, hint that the filmmakers wanted more than a jiggle show, but intelligence and autonomy are often missing from the film version of Lara. She’s…very flat. 

In comparison, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life pads Lara out a bit to give her – gasp – actual motivation beyond ‘daddy!’, more locations, a decent MacGuffin to go after, and challenges with real consequences. As well as bikini and wetsuit scenes. Lara moves from the first film’s piss-poor Indy impression to a decent approximation of James Bond, as she works with MI6, has a disposable love interest (Gerard Butler), and globetrots with hi-tech gadgets. It’s a solid film, but whether people were wary after the first movie, or put off by the lurid and obvious wetsuit poster, it did poorly at the box office. The majority of moviegoers didn’t give Lara another chance, and Jolie stepped away from the franchise.

With whispers of a movie reboot for the character following 2014’s Tomb Raider Definitive Edition, Lara Croft looks to be getting another shot at raiding moviegoers’ pockets for box office bank, but whether she’ll crash and burn this time, or make the jump to screen successfully, is yet to be seen. In an era of moviemaking where Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy can fill theatres, Ripley may be making her comeback, and the Avengers films are adding more women to their line-up, we might be approaching (finally!) a golden time for female action heroes. And, hopefully, Lara will one day be counted with the greats.