From polygonal pinup to action icon
Lara Croft’s boots were made for raidin’, and that’s just what they’ve done for more than two decades — and not just in the realm of video games. The Tomb Raider franchise is 22 years old, but its central character has lived more than a few lifetimes, leaping from PlayStation titles to movies to magazine covers as one of the first digital celebrities. Now, as new series star Alicia Vikander prepares to make her big-screen Tomb Raider debut March 16, EW speaks to the actress, the filmmakers behind two prior Croft movies, and game developers new and old about what makes the adventurer and her legacy so heroic.
Introducing Lara Croft (1996)
Initially conceived as a man, Lara Croft ultimately sprang from the mind of Core Design animator Toby Gard in response to the male-dominated arena of action-adventure games. As Sony’s PlayStation poised itself to disrupt the gaming market with its advanced 3-D capabilities, so did Croft. She was a slick, witty, dastardly British heiress who saved the world not with superheroic powers, but rather physical prowess and brainy gumption. Gard, along with a small team of developers, crafted the first Tomb Raider game in a converted Victorian house in the English city of Derby. “Honestly, I sat there thinking, ‘Oh my God, this is insane,'” developer Gavin Rummery tells EW. “It was a bit like showing up at a car manufacturer wondering what you’re going to work on, and them being like, ‘Oh, you’re going to work on hovercars.'” Tomb Raider‘s unique gameplay elements (it was one of the first 3-D actioners of its size and scope), unconventional lead character, and cinematic aesthetic made it one of the best-selling games of all time.
Rhona Mitra as ‘sexy’ Lara Croft (1997)
Actress Rhona Mitra got her big break as a Lara Croft model in the late ’90s, when publisher Eidos sought to market the character as a sexy pinup, as opposed to the capable action-explorer seen in the games. That drove a wedge between the developers and their distributor. Gard intended to sell Tomb Raider as a revolutionary game, while Eidos saw its star as a head-turning cash cow who’d hawk the title for them. “I think it was one of the things that riled up Toby and all of us, when the marketing got ahold of her and used her as a glamor model,” Rummery says. “That’s just not the character in the games. She’s not that kind of girl.” He adds that none of the Core team members had any idea Croft would become a mainstream celebrity, nor did they intend to make her one: “It’s absolutely true [that her backstory wasn’t important for us]. We were actually backfilling a story for her. She had a very brief history that appeared in the cover manual that came with the game, which was short and explained how she’d gone from being an aristocratic young lady, but later rebelled and discovered herself after surviving a plane crash during a ski trip, which explained why she was a loner. … But we hadn’t really thought of anything beyond that. It was infinitely strange working on Tomb Raider II because, of course, we had people suddenly asking us all these questions as though she was a friend of ours, like who did she date. I was like, ‘How the f— should I know?'”
Tomb Raider II (1997)
As Croft’s profile ballooned, so did Core’s workload. Rummery says Eidos was keen on producing Tomb Raider II on a tight turnaround of eight months — a grueling schedule for the overworked staff, though they met their holiday deadline and were paid handsomely in royalties. Croft’s international appeal broadened even further. She landed partially nude on the covers of magazines, appeared in commercials for soft drinks, and even went on tour with U2. But Gard departed Core before work began on Tomb Raider II, largely upset by the way his creation had been yanked out of his control. “There was always a disconnect between the marketing and the games,” Rummery says, confirming that Gard was “riled up” by the way Eidos promoted Croft as a cyber-bimbo. “That’s the way he wanted to market the games: classic, like a movie [with a poster]. … But the marketing guys totally brushed him off,” Rummery recalls. “We worked our butts off to get this thing finished, and it felt like the moment we’d staggered over the finish line, it was grabbed out of our hands and these marketing guys just went [in a different direction]. They didn’t want any input from us whatsoever. … They got ahold of it and they considered it theirs.”
Contrary to popular belief, a ‘nude cheat’ never existed
Croft rose to prominence in conflicting era of lad’s mags and girl power, and Eidos ultimately caved to the desires of teen boys with its sexualized marketing of Croft. But according to Rummery, “The games never went down that route. We were constantly asked about the [nonexistent] nude cheat. We even riffed on it at the end of Tomb Raider II.” He points to a scene that sees Croft preparing to shower, only to tell the player they’ve “seen enough” as she shoots the in-game camera before it captures her disrobing. “That [scene] was literally our response to constantly being asked things like that,” Rummery says. “We had a lot of lads’ mags asking those questions, and it’s like, for God’s sake, guys, she’s a computer character!”
Croft appears in an ad for Lucozade
Rummery admits that, in hindsight, Eidos’ marketing plan was vital to the game’s global success. “She just seemed to appear at the right time,” he says. “Games were a bit more in the public eye. It was a perfect storm.” He adds, “Up until then, games had been very 2-D, with things sort of bopping around with sound effects, so they’d been pretty much ignored by anyone but teenage boys. Suddenly you had this character that people saw as a woman. They recognized her as a woman. … It wasn’t some sort of fat Italian plumber jumping around this magic land. She was something people who weren’t into video games could relate to. She was real, like a movie star.”
Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation nearly kills Croft (1999)
After years of cranking out sequels on tight deadlines, the Core team reportedly grew so tired of the franchise that they weighed the idea of beheading Croft at the end of the series’ fourth installment, subtitled The Last Revelation. They settled for ambiguity: Instead of Croft meeting a grisly end on camera, the game concludes as a pyramid collapses around her, leaving players in the dark about Croft’s true fate.
Tomb Raider Chronicles salvages Lara’s legacy (2000)
Croft was presumed dead at the end of The Last Revelation, but she didn’t stay buried for long. Tomb Raider Chronicles (the fifth game in five years) picks up immediately following the events of its forerunner as Croft’s associates recount her early adventures at a funeral service. Players navigate their memories as a teenage Croft on the cusp of becoming a worldly traveler. Despite a host of new moves and sleeker graphics, the game sold fewer than 2 million units worldwide — the worst total for a series entry up to that point.
Angelina Jolie arrives for the first Tomb Raider movie (2001)
Croft had become a superstar on her own, but playing her in the first Tomb Raider movie made a bona fide movie star out of Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie. Director Simon West tells that Paramount Pictures wanted to cast an actress “safer” than Jolie (such as Jennifer Lopez or Ashley Judd), whose unorthodox behavior cultivated a “wicked” persona. “The main reason I wanted Angelina to play the part [was] because she, especially at that time, had a great, dark reputation about her that she was quite wicked,” West says. “She lived quite an alternative lifestyle, and she didn’t hold back her words. She spoke her mind, and she had a notorious reputation. It was quite hard for me to get her through the approval process at the studio because I wanted an actress who was going to bring something to the part, and she brought this great Angelina Jolie mythology with her as this dark, crazy, wicked woman with a very particular and interesting personality. I wanted that mythology of Angelina Jolie to fuse with Lara Croft.” His convictions paid off, as the film earned $131 million domestically — at the time, the highest-ever gross for a female-fronted action picture.
Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness crashes the franchise (2003)
For what Jolie did in recharging the aging franchise on the big screen, Croft’s first outing on the PlayStation 2 almost derailed the entire thing. As Core made the jump across the pond to the United States, its team grew to exceed 100 bodies, which Rummery told EuroGamer created a mass of confusion and a damaging lack of focus. “There hadn’t been enough organization,” he said. “Everyone was keeping their head down. No one wanted to take responsibility, so it had no leadership. It was just the mess you would expect to get if you allowed 40 people to do their thing without anyone coordinating it.” Rummery added that Eidos cut large portions of the ambitious project at the last minute. “Half the things that were supposed to be going on weren’t there anymore,” he said. “It ended up being very disjointed and not very polished at all.”
Crystal Dynamics takes the reins for Tomb Raider: Legend (2006)
Despite Angel of Darkness‘ monumental failure, like any great hero, Croft wasn’t down for the count. She’d rise again when Crystal Dynamics took control of the franchise from Core. The developer mounted a critically lauded reboot for the PlayStation 2, which reimagined Croft’s image, story, and gameplay for new audiences and positioned her for a continued period of success on the cusp of the next generation of consoles. “We were honored to work on a franchise as successful and beloved as Tomb Raider,” says Rich Briggs, senior brand director at Crystal Dynamics. “It was before the 2013 reboot, so we weren’t looking at modern survival-action yet. Our focus was on delivering a new adventure, with some unique new gameplay elements, that still felt in keeping with the globetrotting, high-spirited tone of the previous games.”
Tomb Raider: Underworld (2008)
Two years later, Crystal Dynamics didn’t miss a beat upon releasing Tomb Raider: Underworld for the XBox 360. Croft’s next-gen system debut would go on to sell about 3 million units worldwide.
A new raider rises (2013)
Frustrated by the direction Eidos had taken in marketing Croft to male gamers, writer Rhianna Pratchett took matters into her own hands when Crystal Dynamics launched a massive franchise reboot in 2013. “Classic Lara had been a playgirl with the money, gadgets, and guns to deal with any situation, jetting around the world and having these big adventures, and being very James Bond-y,” says Pratchett, whose series overhaul was simply titled Tomb Raider. “That’s not quite as relatable in this day and age of economic strife as maybe she once was. It was great escapism, but we’ve seen a lot of characters like this, living in fantasies. With this Lara, I wanted to bring her down to earth a little bit more, and think about her as an average London student just out of university who paid her way through and worked bar jobs — someone more in line with young women in London today. … A bit more relatable [but also able to] explore that conflict you get with being human and a superhero.”
Tomb Raider (2013)
Pratchett’s goal was to reintroduce Croft as relatable to the droves of young women who’d flocked to video games in recent years. “She’s tenacious, she’s brave, she’s curious — and those were qualities we wanted to keep in Lara,” Pratchett says. “But we got to a point where they were bubbling to the surface and being truly tested for the first time. We wanted to show her when she was younger … as she has a realization that she’s the one who has to be the hero, she’s the one who has to save herself, no one else is going to do it for her. We wanted to explore that kind of growing with the character. The classic games are great; she’s self-assured, quippy, confident, and she’s got everything she needs to solve whatever problems were thrown at her — but we wanted to explore the vulnerability and fear behind the great bravery … on the road toward becoming a tomb raider.”
Alicia Vikander takes Croft in new directions (2018)
Just as Crystal Dynamics reinvented Croft for a new generation, Warner Bros. has done the same on the big screen, 17 years after the first Tomb Raider film. Following in Jolie’s footsteps is fellow Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), in an origin story loosely adapted from the 2013 game that sees Croft venturing to the fictional island of Yamatai in search of her long-lost father. “It was integrated in the story that she is a feminine woman, but she has this physical strength, physical hobbies, and she’s capable,” Vikander tells EW. “If she’s going to be thrown out on this adventure without any experience of becoming the action hero that she is, then you want it to be plausible that she has this physical strength to be able to pull herself up atop a plane and trying to take on a man that is obviously bigger than her.” She adds, “I’m a quite petite girl, and in this film industry I look at stunt girls and admire their strength. That’s the kind of strength I want Lara to have, and it was very empowering to change and feel like I could pump up my own weight. That made me feel like I could create a character people will hopefully believe in.”