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In search of the humanity of a videogame avatar

Academy Award Winner Alicia Vikander takes a new approach to the character
of Lara Croft

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Back in 2001, when Angelina Jolie first assumed the title role in the Simon West adaptation of the videogame “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” she was a newly-minted Academy Award-winner (Best Supporting Actress for “Girl, Interrupted”) and a beauty to be reckoned with. She had a fierce persona with a heaping helping of kink remixed in that automatically steered her projects down dark and dangerous alleys. Jolie was the bad girl of every fanboy’s dreams, which made sense that she would come to embody the impossible avatar of the “Tomb Raider” game.

In two takes – the second being “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” from “Speed” director Jan de Bont – she reminded audiences that mythic heroes and heroines from videogames had absolutely nothing to do with either real (or reel) life characters. Much like old-school Hollywood stars, they were meant to be larger than life fantasies. Impervious and otherworldly, which serves as a pitch-perfect description of Jolie, both then and now.

It is intriguing though, that when it came time to finally reboot the decade-plus dormant franchise, a seemingly similar calculation was made with the casting of Alicia Vikander. A relatively new Oscar-winner (Best Supporting Actress for “The Danish Girl”), Vikander has proven to be a unique and alluring presence as well. From her stern yet quietly affecting performance as a burgeoningly emotional sentient robot in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina” to her riveting turn in the under-performing franchise extender “Jason Bourne,” Vikander always alerts us to the fevered intelligence at work behind the eyes of her characters. Her ever-cool exterior belies the volcanic forces churning inside
that façade.

Which proves to be the necessary ingredient in Roar Uthaug’s re-imagining of the character of Lara Croft. Starting things off with Lara as a driven young woman seeking to make her way in the world without relying on the sizable estate left behind by her beloved father Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), Uthaug and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons (working from a story by Robertson-Dworet and Evan Daugherty) place a great deal of trust in Vikander who, up to now, has not shown a propensity for action chops.

Within moments, we watch her sparring in a mixed martial arts session (despite losing, she shows bottomless determination) and then agreeing to serve as a cycling bait in an illegal race through the urban landscape of East London (imagine Frogger on a bike darting in and out of rush-hour traffic). After barely cheating death, Lara gets bailed out by Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), the trusted advisor/administrator of the Croft estate who reminds Lara that, since her father has been missing for seven years, it is time for her to sign the paperwork that will allow her to tap into the fortune that awaits.

Instead, Lara discovers clues to the puzzle/mystery surrounding her father’s disappearance, which leads her to team up with Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), the drunken son of the sailor who took off with Lord Croft on an epic adventure to uncover the secret behind a mysterious island off the coast of Japan reputed to be the fabled prison of a magical evil queen. Standing in her way is a ruthless soldier-of-fortune named Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) and his mercenary crew, intent on securing the source of the mythic queen’s power and unleashing it on the world.

Sounds like the typical dilemma for an “Indiana Jones” escapade, with the usual CGI elements incorporated to upend all of the natural laws of physics, right?

Well, surprisingly, Uthaug and Vikander unearth moments of intimate sincerity amidst all of the expected mayhem, because at its core, this “Tomb Raider” is about a young woman learning some basic truths about her father and herself. Now I know that sounds silly and somewhat sentimental, but the team here expertly breezes through these scenes before they linger too long and teeter into the realm of cornball.

Vikander, in particular, holds the center quite nicely, helping to maintain an even flow between the outrageous action sequences and the personal interplay Lara has with a host of characters. And every performer displays just the right lived-in quality when paired with her. Unlike Jolie, there’s a refreshing degree of relatable humanity in Vikander. She makes us aware of the fact that this version of Lara Croft is not a superhero yet. She’s on the hero’s journey, but at this moment in time, she’s a small step away from being just one of us. Have no fear though, a raid or two from now, without a doubt, Vikander’s Lara Croft will be quite a force.

Rating: PG-13; Grade: B