Although she’s now one of the world’s most recognizable video game heroines, Lara Croft was never intended to be a heroine at all, at least not at first. When gamemakers began working on the lead character for “Tomb Raider” in 1993, they envisioned a guy with a whip and a hat; his resemblance to Indiana Jones, however, soon made them switch gears. Their hero became a heroine: Laura Cruz, a South American adventurer. In a nod to their British bosses, the creators later changed her to Lara Croft, British heiress.
For this latest reboot, the filmmakers sought inspiration from yet another reboot, the 2013 Square Enix video game “Tomb Raider,” as well as its 2015 sequel. The 2013 title came after more than a decade of middling sales for the series; the second launched a year after #GamerGate, as it came to be called, exposed sexual harassment within the video game industry. In a nod to changing times, the creators opted for more practical attire (cargo pants instead of short shorts) and an infinitely more relatable protagonist, one who actually felt bad when she made her first kills.
Credit Crystal Dynamics/Square Enix Photo
Credit Warner Bros.
“We wanted to show a character who was frightened and unsure, which was something that’s not often shown in video games,” said Rhianna Pratchett, the writer of both games.
The releases were enormous successes, reviving the franchise and combining for 18 million sales. “If it wasn’t for that reboot, Lara probably would have died a lonely, sexist death,” Esther MacCallum-Stewart, a professor of game studies at Staffordshire University, said with a laugh. “People would have gone: Remember the dark days when we had that weird woman with the gigantic breasts?”
The film pulls liberally from both games, such as its setting (Yamatai, an uncharted island off the coast of Japan), villains (the Illuminati-like Trinity) and elaborate action sequences, which include spot on recreations of Lara being swept down a river, leaping off a storm-battered ship and traversing the wing of a rusting World War II bomber.
“We were like: Why would we throw out these amazing scenes from the game?” Ms. Robertson-Dworet said. “We really wanted to do right by the fantastic work that had already been done.”
The filmmakers also wanted to play up the game’s “hero’s journey” story arc, in which Lara begins as something of an innocent before becoming the tomb raider of video game legend, long braids and all. Indeed, the filmmakers initially saw the character as a teenager, and the film as more of a swashbuckling adventure. “The original version of Lara was very sassy, much more Marvel in tone,” Ms. Robertson-Dworet said.
A lot of that changed when Ms. Vikander came aboard. Even before she took the role, the actress was shaping discussions about how to approach the project. “We were like: This is the girl who just won the Academy Award for ‘The Danish Girl,’ and now we’re going to offer her Lara Croft?” Mr. King said. “We thought, let’s not say Lara Croft, let’s not say ‘Tomb Raider,’ right? Let’s just tell her the story.”
The story they told Ms. Vikander was of a daughter searching for her long-lost father, a woman trying to avoid being defined by her admittedly enormous family fortune. Of course, there would also be action, lots of it: leaps into bone-chilling water, foot chases across a maze of boats in a Hong Kong harbor, battles with bows, ice picks and bare fists.
“I’m very petite, and so I knew I would have to get stronger to be able to do all that,” Ms. Vikander said. “I really look up to girls who have that physicality, who can make you believe that they can take on a bigger man, or survive on an island like she does.”
In the film’s posters and trailers, Lara Croft is more CrossFit athlete than pinup girl. “There’s one video which just focuses on her fitness, and she’s doing pull-ups, and you see all of the corded muscle in her back,” said Ms. MacCallum-Stewart. “It’s a really unusual way to show a female actress, but very much ties in with the different way that Lara is being presented now as a character.”
In many ways, this latest Lara is a lot like Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, with her cool weapons and wirework-assisted leaps; similarly, the film’s action is more about athleticism and superhero-style stunts than hyperviolence (both films, despite their high body counts, are PG-13). Its creators hope that the film will both launch the franchise anew and, alongside “Wonder Woman,” lead to even more female-led action films.
For Ms. Robertson-Dworet, it already has. On a recent afternoon at the Four Seasons here, she recounted how she got hired by the MGM executive Cassidy Lange on the strength of her unproduced screenplay “Ares.”
“I don’t know if it’s true across the industry for female writers,” she said, “but my first opportunities were almost always given to me by female executives.”
Now she is currently attached to three films starring female superheroes: “Captain Marvel,” with Brie Larson; “Silver and Black”; and “Gotham City Sirens.”
“There was a belief for a long time that action movies with female leads didn’t do as well at the box office,” Ms. Robertson-Dworet said. “I think that’s now been proven wrong, just like the myth that a black hero won’t do as well at the box office. That myth has been shattered, and I’m hoping that all this myth-shattering will lead to even more diversity on screen.”