Why The Original 'Tomb Raider' Matters To A Generation Of Women, Even If It's Not Very Good

(Welcome to Nostalgia Bomb, a series where we take a look back on beloved childhood favorites and discern whether or not they're actually any good. In this edition: Angelina Jolie's original Tomb Raider movies.)

In 1979, my mother walked into the theater to see Alien, and to this day talks about how floored she was to see what she described as a "real woman hero." Not a beehive updo in sight. My mom was represented and she was inspired. My mother may never watch Alien now, because, well, it's terrifying, but she still remembers how she felt seeing Ellen Ripley.

In June of 2001 my mother saw the previews for Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. She knew nothing about the video game, but that didn't matter. She took me and my sister to see it, and for two hours we got to watch a strong, cool, intelligent, driven woman lead an action movie. No critic, no bad review, nothing could take away the feeling of seeing our first real action role model in film. 17 years later, Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft is still engrained in my psyche. She was the epitome of everything I wanted to grow up to be, and I feel like she motivated and inspired some of the cooler moments in my life.

Let There Be Lara

Let's get something clear: Tomb Raider is not just totally wicked cool because it is an action movie starring a woman; it is totally wicked cool because it is an action movie based on a video game starring a woman. A child of 1991, I have grown up with the evolution of video games. Having older brothers, I was able to balance playing colorful games like Super Mario 64 while also learning how to uppercut my way to victory in Mortal Kombat. Whether it was Turok, Doom, Serious Sam, or Golden Eye, video games were about the coolest thing in my small but ever-growing universe. There were heroes and there were princesses, and then there was Lara.

I never played Tomb Raider. In fact, my first time ever taking on the character was with the 2013 reboot, but she was always there. I would always see her peering out of the stack of games. Somewhere between 'Doomguy' and James Bond, there was Lara. I can't honestly recall if we actually owned the game or I just remember seeing one of those little paper "coming soon" ads that fell to the floor as you were quickly ripping open the box to get to the game you actually purchased. But I remember her. I couldn't quite identify why I was staring at her, but I was so curious about this woman with a long brown braid like the one my mom always put in my hair, standing strong amongst all the boys.

It wasn't until I got to college that girls playing video games became cool and the norm and like "so hot." Games may have been evolving at a rapid rate, but they still weren't quite the staple they are today. I remember as late as my junior year in high school getting a condescending "That's cute" when I told a guy, who I considered a friend, that I played the same video games as him. My freshman year of college, I proclaimed at a party that I was pretty awesome at Mortal Kombat, only to be laughed at by a male acquaintance. He believed me later, but only because a close male friend vouched for me and said, "No, dude, it's true." I was thankful for the assist, but still sad that it was required. Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of friends both gamer and non-gamer alike, but as far as I know, none of my male gamer friends have stories of being grilled to the nth degree at GameStop because they had the audacity to not need any help.

However, through all of those years, I had Lara. I still hadn't played the game, but Lara's existence mattered. Tomb Raider the movie mattered. After the movie came out in 2001, everyone, gamer or not, knew who the Tomb Raider was. My sister and I became obsessed with her, and even my mom thought that "she is just such a badass." Lara Croft was a household name. She was the best parts of James Bond and Indiana Jones, but without the machismo. It was one thing to see that computer-generated, best-graphics-the-mid-90s-had-to-offer video game version, but the movies? This was major. A giant budget, an Oscar Award Winning lead, based on a video game, and starring a woman. It really wasn't until June of 2017, when I saw Wonder Woman, that I felt that kind of validation in action again. Whatever the critics said, whatever anyone said, my sister and I walked a little taller from the moment we saw Tomb Raider.

A Lady Should Be Modest

One needn't look any further than the woman herself to figure out what makes Tomb Raider entrancing and entertaining. Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft is some of the most perfect casting that I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. To state the obvious, Angelina Jolie looks exactly like the title video game character, with all of the necessary charm and endowments. However, it is much more than looks that make the woman. She was able to perfectly portray so many different facets of femininity and be believable as an action star. She is emotionally vulnerable and almost childlike when it comes to talking about her father, she is coy and delightful and endearing and respectful when interacting with native peoples and children, she is tough and fierce and commanding when dealing with her foes, and she is focused when facing a task. Honestly, there is a part of me, as a child and even now as an adult, that isn't completely convinced that Tomb Raider is work of fiction, and Angelina Jolie just did the movie to throw people off her superhero scent.

I remember when I first saw the scene where she gets out of the shower. Her butler tells her that "a lady should be modest," and she throws off her towel and proclaims "yes, a lady should be modest." She gave not a single fuck, and my 10-year old self was thinking whatever the 2001 pop-culture vernacular equivalent for "Yass queen" was. Her confidence in herself doesn't end there. Later, she startles a naked Daniel Craig, her frenemy/lover(?) of sorts throughout the story, after sneaking into his room. With a quick exchange and a subtle hint of flirtation, she lets the future James Bond know who he is dealing with. She owned the room, and put fear and doubt into this confident man's eyes. This empowerment, however, does not reside solely in private rooms with partial nudity. When it comes to the task at hand, she fearlessly stands on a ledge in a temple staring down at a room full of men armed with guns and egos, and when she tells them they are wrong, they listen. Like her beauty, her intelligence and her abilities were never questioned. Not by her friends, not by her enemies, and not by herself.

Angelina Jolie's Lara Croft has been "#Goals" for me since the hashtag was merely a pound sign. The '90s were full of a lot of teen romcoms, and entertaining as some of them were, they really put people into specific categories and fairly strict boxes. The pretty girls weren't nerdy, dirty, or funny and a lot of the protagonists required some sort of makeover to be heard. Don't get me wrong, I firmly believe that Clueless is a national treasure, but where was our variety? It had been years since Ellen Ripley took on the xenomorphs, and in 2001 the toughest woman that I remembered seeing was Sarah Conner, who, though strong, is a fairly shaky role model to say the least. Lara Croft was beauty and brawn. To this day one of the highest compliments in my universe is, "Omg that is so Lara Croft." In layman's terms, it means your outfit, or look, has achieved being both sexy and tough. Lara Croft is that perfect embodiment of the brand of feminism so prevalent in our modern times, and one that means so much to women like me. You can want to be sexy and want to be tough. You don't have to choose, and one never negates the other.

First Action Heroine 

"Action movies are cool. Like, really cool. Like, you don't understand, they are like soooo cool." That isn't a direct quote, but I think it fairly accurately depicts my abilities as a wordsmith when I was a kid. Whether it was nature or nurture, I have always loved action movies. Give me a fire fight and a strategically ripped shirt over a bulging pectoral muscle or give me death. True Lies, Terminator 2, Predator, Independence Day: just give me explosions and chases and sweat and apparently a lot of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and I was a happy child. Action movies to me were always ridiculous and over-the-top, with heroes that leapt free and clear over the line of what is actually humanly possible. They also primarily starred men.

I had never really noticed nor did I care that these action movie heroes were all cut from the same mold. That was all there was to my knowledge, so what other way could there be? And then there was Tomb Raider. Both Tomb Raider movies encompass all that is good and  "no effing way" about my favorite action films. I may be focusing on the first Tomb Raider film, but let's not forget that in Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life, Lara Croft escapes from Alexander the Great's collapsing sunken treasure temple by cutting her arm to attract a shark that she could then ride to the surface before running out of breath. That shit doesn't happen as much in movies these days, and I think we are the poorer for it. I have found that people are quick to say that the action in Tomb Raider is unrealistic due to Angelina Jolie's small frame and thin arms, and to that I say, 'all of the muscle in the world doesn't make it anymore realistic for Arnold Schwarzenegger to catch his daughter on the nose of a jet while fighting a terrorist, soooo...'

However, there was something extra special about this particular action movie. Maybe not as mind-blowing as the fact that where I would once expect to see a rippling pectoral muscle I now saw breasts, but still uniquely special to my particular brand of geek. Tomb Raider, for better or worse, was straight-up a live action video game. I never really realized it until recently, but there is a pulse to it that resonates more with gamers. You can feel which scenes would be a cutscene and it all but perfects the different layers to a genuine boss fight. One of the best examples is the Cambodian temple.

First comes the puzzle. Figure out how to get the prize. You did it! Wait, that was too easy. Oh no! Animated stone demons. Phew! Killed them. Oh no! The boss! I don't know what to do so I am going to shoot up the face. I think it's working! Dammit! It has three more faces and now it has swords too, but I am running out of ammo. Hmm, the giant heavy beam with a big pointy end is still swinging, I wonder if I can use that? Oh no, more stone demons.

You get the idea. Not to mention the final boss fight includes a fantastical race up a pyramid, which is 100% okay in a video game, and 100% "what hell is going on?" in a movie.

Okay, But Does It Hold Up?


I can't sit here in good faith as a writer and say that this movie stands the test of time. It unfortunately more accurately falls into that category of a bad movie that I can't help but love. Most notably, I have found over the years that I am really only attached to the first two thirds of the story. What was a cool fun action movie mostly flatlines after the Cambodian temple. The bungee ballet that leads into the massive firefight inside Croft Manor is one of my favorite action sequences of all time, and the battle inside the temple, horribly outdated visual effects aside, is just so damn fun, but once it is over, the movie feels wanting. As cool as the big planetary orbit inside the snow cave is, the passion and pace from earlier is gone.

When I say Angelina Jolie is the glue of this movie, I truly mean that. Iain Glen is an indefensibly terrible villain. The more I watch this movie as an adult, and the more I fall in love with Iain Glen as the forever friendzoned Jorah Mormont, the more I realize that every single line he has throughout the entire movie is bad and cringeworthy. They do a good job playing up how extra he is, but it should have been taken a step further. He just ends up feeling like a Bond villain in a high school play. He is in no way a worthy adversary for Lara, and the mediocrity is 10 times worse upon learning that he murdered her father. You're left with a feeling of "Really? That guy?"

Although the live-action video game aspect makes for a super entertaining and unique take on the action, the story ultimately suffers for it. Tomb Raider is a video game adaptation before video games rivaled Hollywood movies with A-List actors lending their casts and top-notch screenwriters crafting the story. I couldn't figure out why the ending always felt so strange to me, and it finally occurred to me that for a movie, it feels out of order. In a video game, that final "Oh, you thought this was over" boss fight between Lara Croft and Mr. Powell makes sense; in the movie, it feels tacked on. I really wish it had been revealed earlier that Mr. Powell had murdered Lara's father so that there would have been that much more anger and intensity in the final sequence, and it would have made that race up the pyramid and the rotating of the knife while time is frozen that much more gripping.

Final Thoughts

What I learned most from revising these movies is how important it really is to have more female leads like Lara Croft. It didn't matter that Tomb Raider wasn't the best movie, because Lara was all we really had. There were 22 years between Alien and Tomb Raider. Twenty. Two. Years. There aren't even twenty-two months or sometimes weeks between male-lead action films. Those numbers are even more drastic for women of color. So, yeah, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider may not hold up that well, but Lara was revolutionary and she was mine. My future children will never know a world without Katniss and a big-budget Wonder Woman series and one day we might even get to argue about which Lara Croft is better. I look forward to those conversations.