Print Screen: Total Franchise Reboot
Tomb Raider occupies a unique place in our cultural landscape. Lara Croft is one of the few obviously female heroes: She is neither sidekick nor romantic afterthought, and there's no body armor to mask her identity. For good or ill, Lara has more action games than any comparable male game hero, and an existence as a sex object beyond the games themselves. Half-Life may be a more significant gaming experience, but Lara Croft is bigger than Gordon Freeman will ever be.
It's hard to imagine anyone taking Angelina's place.
The generally poor reception that greeted Tomb Raider Underworld was probably not a surprise -- the series itself is getting old and a little toothless -- but Eidos' response to criticism was to announce a reimagining of the games and the character. Initial reports have focused on the idea that Lara will be made more "female-friendly," an idea that Underworld's creative director, Eric Lindstrom, found surprising.
It's become clear that the franchise reboot will include revisiting the Tomb Raider film series. Lara's relative film success is yet another way that Tomb Raider separates itself from the rest of the action game market. While neither of the Angelina Jolie-led films could be considered a masterpiece, they also weren't widely ridiculed failures like the Doom movie or anything made by Uwe Boll. The Tomb Raider movies are two of the top-five-grossing videogame adaptations. The first one, 2001's "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider," cleared 130 million at the domestic box office (good enough to make the top-15-grossing movies of the year) and a little bit more overseas. The 2003 sequel, "The Cradle of Life," made only half that, but could hardly be considered a bust.*
Megan Fox was rumored for the role, but can she fill the shorts?
Warner Brothers, a partner in Eidos, is exploring a near-total reinvention of Lara Croft, from her origin story to how she deals with romance. This is not just an attempt to revive a flagging action game series; it is a movement to restore Lara to pop-culture relevance. But now that the game's heroine has less cultural oomph than she used to, how can they best re-brand the movie series based on her exploits?
One of Lara Croft's big problems as a character is her power, which is appropriate for games in which the player controls the hero, but a poor fit for the movie format. Lara is the richest, smartest, toughest, prettiest and most agile character in every room, almost a James Bond of treasure-hunting. What makes sense for a spy or superhero, however, may not work for a globe-trotting heiress. This is probably a compelling factor in Warner's desire to rework her origin. Maybe Lara could be more adventurous scholar than playgirl of the Western world.
Lara has often been cast as this generation's Indiana Jones, an action serial hero whose appeal is rooted in escaping from perilous situations. But I'm not sure that the Indiana Jones movies are an appropriate model for the Tomb Raider franchise. Though less talked about in the annals of fake history and pseudo-science film, both the National Treasure and The Mummy series have been very successful with a formula quite distinct from that of Indiana Jones, even as they tread similar ground. Both these series are lighter in mood than the already giddy Indiana Jones movies and, most importantly, surround their heroes with companions. Lara is a lone wolf striding across the tundra in fashion winter wear. While she doesn't need a Short Round, she could use a posse of some sort. Even though they can't play Lara for laughs without betraying what she represents, a sense of adventure also needs a sense of fun, and that has been missing in both the movies and the games.
Nicholas Cage gave us an alternative look at the movie archaeologist.
There is also the problem of casting. Oscar winner and nominee Angelina Jolie has been in action movies since "Cradle of Life," including last year's "Wanted." At 33, she's certainly not over the hill and is still one of Hollywood's most reliable screen presences. But a franchise reboot might require a new star. There is no shortage of other talented and adventurous women who could fill Angelina's shoes. Megan Fox ("Transformers") was originally reported to be taking on the role, but this was quickly dismissed as an unfounded rumor. Evangeline Lilly ("Lost") is used to running through jungles with a blank stare on her face, and is more approachable than the statuesque Jolie. If they want to go with a real actress, like Jolie, maybe Anne Hathaway can be persuaded to slum a little; she did do "Bride Wars."
The final casting decision will largely depend on the approach taken to the character. There has to be athleticism, but Warner wants romance, too. In action movies, a pretty face is no guarantee of credibility, as Denise Richards found to her detriment in "The World Is Not Enough"; even if you don't look like a nuclear physicist, you still have to act like a nuclear physicist. Love her, hate her or resent her, Lara Croft has a certain gravitas, even when she is looking ridiculous in a high-cut wet suit.
The relationship between a videogame and a movie based on the game is usually very tenuous. But if both Warner and Eidos are serious about making Lara Croft more relevant as a character and movie franchise, then they could take advantage of one platform to push the other. Models have always carried the heroine's image to conventions and marketing events, so why not cast an unknown model/actress to both model the game avatar and star in the movies? Though a new Tomb Raider game will certainly hit shelves before any new movie reaches theaters, this could be a great multimedia marketing opportunity. Few words are as chilling to the game critic as "movie tie-in," but a commitment to understanding who Lara Craft is and what she represents can only be good for the longevity of the franchise -- and for giving Lara the vehicle she deserves.
*All figures from Box Office Mojo.