Before Lara Croft holstered her twin pistols, loaded up her jeep with all manner of axes, arrows, bows and bullets, and set out for star studded Hollywood, the video game movie landscape was in a desperate state to say the least. Up to that point, the only real video game hits to trade in their Dual-shock controllers for Dolby Surround Sound were the ill-received Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter, Dungeons and Dragons and Mortal Kombat (although, that last one remains one of my favourite guilty pleasure movies…)
And whilst none of these attempts to cash in on profitable IP’s went the way the studios had hoped (with some even killing the chances of future instalments for years to come), the desire to mine the gaming well for a box office hit remained too great to ignore.
Enter Tomb Raider.
In 1996, a new action/adventure game burst onto the scene with the intrepid explorer Lara Croft. Sexy, fearless and never content with the weekly crossword for a challenge, Tomb Raider was a welcome change from the normal male lead action games that cluttered the market at the time. The game was a huge success upon release, garnering critical and consumer acclaim. It sold well over 7 million copies worldwide when it finally hit the shelves, and the folks over at Paramount didn’t think twice in seizing the chance to capitalise on the pyramid perusing, curvaceous brunette.
Bringing the movie to the silver screen, however, proved more difficult than taking down a T-Rex with a handgun. The film’s script went through so many drafts that it ultimately led to production delays, and the eventual director, Simon West, ended up having to tackle the script himself, rewriting well into production and receiving a co-writing credit along with five other writers for his efforts (the abundance of writers all throwing their ideas at the wall was definitely noticeable when the film was released).
Casting the film also brought its own challenges. Finding the right actress who could embody such a beloved, tough and sexy icon as Lara Croft proved to be quite an extensive search, and a long list of Hollywood stars were initially considered for the part. Some of the famous faces in the running for the role included Jennifer Love Hewitt, Famke Janssen, Ashley Judd, Sandra Bullock and Catherine Zeta-Jones, but it was ultimately the wild child daughter of actor Jon Voight, Angelina Jolie – both of whom would play on-screen father and daughter in the film itself – that finally convinced West he had found his heroic heroine. The casting of Jolie was met with some backlash from fans that thought she was unfit for the role, some citing her physique as too slim and others taking offence at an American taking on a British character, but these misplaced fears were finally put to bed when the audiences got a look at the finished film.
In June of 2001, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was released. It debuted to audiences worldwide as a number 1 box office chart-topper, the film totalling $48 million in its opening weekend and going on to earn over $274 million by the end of its run. It was official, Tomb Raider was a box office hit, at least enough of one to green light a follow up. The film was, however, far from a hit with critics.
While Jolie’s performance was generally regarded as the high point of the film, along with a few fun but senseless action set pieces, the film’s uneven plot, lack of character development and choppy execution meant it would forever be lumped in with the rest of the video game movie rejects – this being the case despite the film remaining the highest grossing video game adaptation in North American box office history and the 7th highest grossing video game movie ever.
It appeared then, that a sequel was all but inevitable. Soon enough, that sequel would be put into production.
After the release of Tomb Raider, Angelina Jolie received a wave of new-found stardom as a result of her portrayal of Lara Croft. Suddenly, “Angie” was an international action star and by the time the Tomb Raider sequel blasted its way into theaters, Jolie had become one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood. Over the next 10 years, she would carve herself a career out of smaller dramatic roles broken up by larger action blockbusters like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 2005 (a role that is said to be the catalyst for her eventual marriage to co-star Brad Pitt in the celebrity wedding of the decade).
In 2003, Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life was unleashed onto cinema screens and would mark the end of Jolie’s tenure as Lara Croft, as well as the franchise as a whole (at least for the time being). The movie received slightly better reviews than the first but took a disappointing dip at the box office from its predecessor, ending up with a worldwide accumulation of around $156 million, a drop off of nearly $100 million in global takings.
It was also well known at this time that Jolie’s interest in the role had all but vanished and the actress was looking ahead to future projects away from the padded bra and tank top, silencing any noise of a third instalment (which at this point was still the intention, even with falling figures). And so it seemed that Lara Croft had raided her last tomb, though she had already left her legacy…
Up until that point, video game movies had struggled to make bank at the box office – most of which failed to break even let alone turn a profit – but Tomb Raider changed that. Suddenly Hollywood could see there was indeed a market for video game movies in the mainstream. They just had to get them right.
And boy did they try.
The following years saw an influx in gaming properties getting the big screen treatment. Resident Evil had already kicked off a lucrative franchise in 2002, spawning five more sequels over fifteen years and becoming the highest grossing video game movie franchise ever. Other less successful attempts included another popular survival horror adaptation Silent Hill (2006), the first-person shooter turned Dwayne Johnson career hurdle Doom (2005), the innovative yet costly (and arguably underrated) Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) and the cinematic quicksand that was Prince of Persia (2010).
The success of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider gave way to a slew of new video game movies all vying for the crown of best game-to-film adaptation, and while most failed to reach the next level in terms of popularity and praise, they all have Lara Croft to thank, at least in part, for breaking through into the mainstream.
For fifteen years dust gathered on tombs the world over. No one dared go near one, let alone raid one. That was until word came that a Tomb Raider reboot was in the works and would star Academy Award winning actress Alicia Vikander as the new, modern take on Lara Croft.
This new interpretation would be based on the most recent games in the Tomb Raider series that served as an origin for the titular heroine. They also portrayed Lara in a more grounded, realistic fashion and the new film would certainly adopt a similar approach.
The project, simply titled Tomb Raider, was released in 2018 with ambitions of overcoming the video game movie curse. Unfortunately, it failed to take the number 1 spot at the box office, falling just behind superhero mega-hit Black Panther which was already in its fifth weekend. It was a crushing blow for the studio who were eager to capitalise on the revamped property and launch a new franchise in the process.
The film was met with a mixed reception, some stating it lacked an engaging enough story while others criticised the lack of humour and underwhelming action. As it turned out, the film wasn’t the great saviour of video game movies that some had hoped, failing to lift the bar and instead finding itself nestled somewhere in the upper ruins of game-to-movie cash ins.
The film ended up with a total of around $274 million in worldwide takings, which was almost the exact figure the first film had made, though just slipping behind it to take second place as the highest Tomb Raider earner (and that’s not taking inflation into account). And so it seemed that the future of the franchise was once again put into question, with plans for a second film buried deeper than Himiko’s sarcophagus.
So, where next for Lara Croft?
While she might be laying low for now (probably back to her bicycle couriering gig), in a world of reboots and remakes, spin offs and knock offs, it’s almost a guarantee that another Tomb Raider film will one day shoot its way out of motion picture purgatory and a fresh incarnation will try its hand at defeating the box office boss, proving one more time that you just can’t keep a good tomb raider down.