When I first watched Roar Uthaug’s Tomb Raider, what impressed me most was Lara Croft’s intelligence and physical strength. She can overpower men twice her size, climb up a cliff face with no equipment, and solve riddles faster than I could even read them. But after several re-watches, I have come to realise that there’s more to Lara than just being a strong, badass woman. Behind the brains and the brawn is a deeply emotional human being, which makes Lara as relatable as she is inspirational.
Tomb Raider follows Lara on her quest to find out what happened to her father – wealthy businessman and archaeologist Richard Croft – after he went missing several years ago. A series of clues locked away in a hidden basement, including a video camera and stacks upon stacks of books and papers, lead her to the lost island of Yamatai off the coast of Japan. She is accompanied by boat captain Lu Ren, whose father went missing at the same time as Richard after sailing with him to the island. Unlike Lara, who has refused to sign for her large inheritance out of hope that her father is still alive, Lu Ren gave up years ago and now spends his days drinking and gambling. They’re united by their loss but are separated by how they have dealt with it. They get physically separated, too, when they reach the island and are captured by malevolent organisation Trinity, whose lead archaeologist Mathias Vogel is looking for the same tomb that Richard was researching. While Richard was desperate to keep the contents of the tomb – the ‘cursed’ remains of mythical queen Himiko – hidden from the outside world, Vogel was tasked with recovering them for his employer. Lara and Lu Ren are held captive at the Trinity camp, but Lara manages to escape when Lu Ren finds an opportunity to knock out one of Vogel’s henchman. What follows is a long, perilous getaway that culminates in her crashing through a dense forest with a ripped parachute.
Lara’s intellectual and physical prowess is the focus of this first act. She has certainly met her fair share of failures and obstacles, from losing a friendly boxing match in the opening scene to battling the immense Pacific Ocean waves on the way to Yamatai, but so far she seems to have taken it all in her stride with a superhuman flair. However, as her parachute comes down and she crashes to the ground, tumbling several metres across the forest floor, her human nature is laid bare. While gasping for breath, she slowly and painfully props herself up and notices a sharp object jutting out of her abdomen. She wails in agony and disbelief, repeatedly looking at the spike and away again as if hoping it will magically disappear. Lara doesn’t underemphasise her suffering or even put on a brave face to get through it, no matter how physically strong she might be. When she slowly takes hold of the spike with shaking hands, we get a close-up of her face as she tries to psyche herself up to pull it out, but even then she looks more frightened than anything else. Lara isn’t the hardened, gritty action hero who can shrug off an injury with little fuss, she suffers through it as anybody else would.
Lara’s also not a trained killer; she’s never even picked up a weapon. She fights to defend herself, not to put an end to someone’s life. The first person she kills is the mercenary that Vogel sends after her to bring her back to the camp. He ambushes her in the forest at night, locking her in a chokehold before she manages to bite down on his arm. He throws her into the shallow, muddy pond in front of them and a wrestling match ensues, with Lara eventually gaining the upper hand. She narrowly avoids being shot before she pushes the mercenary’s head underwater and drowns him. There is no pride or vengeance in Lara’s actions; she acts neither in hate nor in anger. As she holds the man’s head under the water, she screams and cries with so much pain in her voice that if you didn’t know any better, you would think that she was the one being killed. She thrashes her hand into the water as if she were back in the ring tapping out of a boxing match, wishing for the whole ordeal to just be over. The moment the mercenary’s body stops moving she stares down at him with tears in her eyes, not being able to comprehend what she has just done. The camera peers over her shoulder, showing the mercenary lying motionless below her. She acted in pure self-defence but is justifiably horrified at the lengths she had to go to, shown by the look of guilt on her face as she stares at the body. Her emotiveness and physical strength work in tandem in this scene. The harder she has to fight against the struggling mercenary, the more distressed she becomes and the more her emotions let rip in an act of catharsis. It’s as if she’s purging her fear, pain from the spear wound and her emotional pain all at once, and this keeps her going until the mercenary is finally subdued.
Moments after her fight with the mercenary, Lara spots a figure in the distance and runs after them to a cliff, still clutching her wound. The figure uses a rope to climb up but snatches it up before Lara gets the chance to grab it, so she clambers up the rock with nothing but her body strength. When she reaches the top, she finds her father – alive and very unkempt – stoking a fire. At first, he refuses to believe it’s her and is convinced she’s just a figment of his imagination like always. But after Lara imitates a loving goodbye gesture that Richard used to do when she was a child, he realises that she’s there for real this time. It’s not long before Lara starts to keel over from the pain of her wound and begs Richard to help her, clutching onto him as he helps her lie down. For the last several hours, since she sustained her injury, Lara has been in pain but has remained resilient, continuing to fight and defend herself through her suffering. It isn’t until her father acknowledges her presence that her resilience starts to crumble. She has got this far without him there, but when they’re reunited her inner vulnerability suddenly breaks through and she becomes dependent on him as if she were a child again. She doesn’t hide her physical and emotional pain for the sake of looking tough; she accepts it because she has nothing to prove.
Even when confronting the enemy, Lara doesn’t try to suppress her emotions and put on a brave face. After Vogel and his henchman catch Richard at the tomb’s entrance the next day, they hold him at gunpoint and force him to open it. Lara sneaks up on them with a bow and arrow she acquired from the cave, shoots one of the men and takes aim at Vogel. In response, Vogel trains his gun on Richard and warns Lara that he’ll kill him if he doesn’t open the tomb. Richard is at peace with dying if it means millions of lives are saved from Himiko’s curse, but Lara feels quite the opposite. “I’m sorry, I haven’t come all this way to see you die,” she says, her teary eyes and trembling lip betraying the way she stands confidently with her bow and arrow. Her courage in facing Vogel does not conceal her fear and anguish, it’s written all over her face. Even with a weapon in her hands, she doesn’t possess any classic action hero bravado; she isn’t trying to intimidate Vogel by looking tough or showing off her skills. Her goals are more defensive than offensive; she is much more interested in getting herself and Richard safely off the island than taking down Trinity. Fighting the bad guys is not her occupation but she will do it if it saves her father’s life. It won’t, in this situation, which is why she lowers her weapon instead of shooting Vogel. She cannot risk the likelihood that a bullet from his gun would hit Richard before her arrow would hit him. Lara is motivated by love, not by a hero agenda, and so she acts accordingly.
Despite all of Lara’s efforts throughout her journey, she is ultimately unable to save her father. He becomes infected by Himiko’s curse – which was a fatal disease all along – when he and Lara, and Vogel and his team, reach her final resting place in the tomb. Richard sends Lara after Vogel, who flees with a piece of Himiko’s body after his henchmen become infected, and asks her to promise that she’ll stop Vogel from escaping. Lara weeps as she kneels next to Richard, refusing to accept his inevitable fate and insisting that she needs him. Just like when they were first reunited in the cave, Lara’s inner vulnerability breaks through and takes over. This time, however, she cannot depend on him for help. Her emotional pain cannot be healed like her spear wound. She doesn’t accept her father’s dying wish easily, and tears stream from her eyes as she gets up and grabs a weapon. They say their final goodbyes, and Lara sadly but resolutely turns away and runs back through the tomb.
What makes Lara Croft such a compelling action hero is that her capacity to feel deeply is as much at the core of her character as her intelligence and physicality. She is tough, but not at the expense of her emotions. She is her very own knight in shining armour, but she won’t refuse help for the sake of her pride. Her fight is a long and painful one, both physically and emotionally, but the film’s explicit portrayal of this does not make her any less of a strong female character. Her fear, distress, emotiveness, and compassion make her human, and what are we if not human?
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