For the last five weeks, new movies have seen their opening box office slashed by “Black Panther.” And one casualty — on the domestic side at least — was franchise reboot “Tomb Raider.” When the videogame franchise opened to $23 million in North America last weekend, “Tomb Raider” was written off as a box office disappointment. It may barely squeak into the black via robust returns in overseas markets. Warner Bros. distribution chief Jeff Goldstein admitted that “Tomb Raider” was targeted from the start to appeal to foreign audiences, especially in China. “We looked at the property as an international piece driving the business,” he said. “And that’s essentially what happened.”
Sure enough, the action movie opened at number one in China, the world’s second-biggest market. After its second weekend, the movie tallies $41.7 million domestic and a worldwide total of $211 million. Domestically, it was a ‘tweener — neither a male actioner for videogame hounds, nor a smarthouse movie aimed at Swedish star Alicia Vikander, who won a Supporting Actress Oscar for “The Danish Girl.”
Nonetheless, “Tomb Raider” was a well-mounted, intelligently wrought adventure, more grounded in the real world than its fantasy predecessors. More importantly, it establishes the action bonafides of both Vikander and director Roar Uthaug (Norway’s Oscar submission “The Wave”), who grew up on Indiana Jones and Die Hard movies. Both come out ahead.
Based on the 1996 video game series, Simon West’s 2001 “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” starred the curvy 26-year-old Angelina Jolie, another young actress with Oscar cred (“Girl Interrupted”). “Lara Croft” opened to $47 million (despite scathing reviews) and established Jolie as a leading woman with action chops who could carry a movie. She went on to star in such action hits as “Wanted” and “Salt.”
Paramount targeted its initial “Tomb Raider” marketing at male videogame players who could still be relied upon to crowd opening weekends. In 2003, Jan DeBont’s follow-up, “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life,” fared only slightly better with critics, and scored $157 million worldwide; the original “Tomb Raider” made $273 million.
Even at a 48 Metascore for the new movie, it fared far better with critics than the original. However, it faced off against “Black Panther,” which still topped the box office in its fifth week, and Warner Bros. couldn’t lure the wider demos to “Tomb Raider” that flocked to DC Comics blockbuster “Wonder Woman.”
“We always believed that we could make a movie that wasn’t specifically geared towards men,” said Goldstein. However, the 2018 “Tomb Raider” audience skewed 56 percent male; studio promotional materials did not suggest much more than a retread.
A troika of producing entities — MGM, Graham King’s GK Films, and Warner Bros. — fashioned a post-“Hunger Games” take on the braided videogame heroine. After several scripts went nowhere (Megan Fox and Kristen Stewart were attached to earlier iterations), MGM responded enthusiastically to a pitch from Norwegian director Uthaug, who directed the $6.5 million Scandinavian disaster thriller “The Wave,” about a tsunami flooding a fjord town in Norway.
Hollywood has embraced Scandinavian directors of late, from Iceland’s Baltasar Kormákur (“Everest”) to the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean” directors, Norway’s Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg. Clearly, Uthaug could handle suspenseful action, emotional scenes with actors, and convincing visual effects.
Uthaug sold them on a “Tomb Raider” that was “grounded and authentic,” he said. “I wanted Lara to not be the rich kid living in the mansion. I wanted her to be a normal girl next door living in East London working as a bike courier trying to make ends meet. Meanwhile, in the back of her mind, tearing at her, is the loss of her father who disappeared 10 years ago that she hasn’t really confronted.”
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture
He started over with screenwriter Geneva Robertson-Dworet. They liked the 2013 reboot of the video game, which took place on Pacific island Yamatai. Lara chases her missing father (Dominic West) to the tomb of the ancient Japanese death queen Himiko. The game also offered some big action set pieces. “In the game, you see how Lara Croft makes her first kill, takes a human life for the first time,” said Uthaug. “Her reaction to that was something we wanted to keep in the movie.”
The Yamatai shipwreck sequence in a raging storm took full advantage of Uthaug’s water skills. The art department built a rickety old ship and mounted it on a giant gimbal for the filmmaker to rock around with Vikander and Daniel Wu on deck, buffeted by water cannons, wind machines, and lightning strikes. “It was an intense shoot,” said Uthaug. “I like to do as much as possible in camera, which gives it more weight, makes it feel more real, and dangerous.”
In another ambitious action sequence, Croft is washed over a rushing waterfall and grabs a ruined plane perched on the precipice. As she climbs, the rusted wing starts to collapse. The filmmaker edited together footage of parachute wire and plane wing action shot near Cape Town, with Vikinder hanging upside down in a spinning fusilage interior on a nearby soundstage; in London, she splashed in a water tank and at an Olympic white water rafting facility. “I didn’t want the CGI to overpower the action,” said Uthaug.
Uthaug wanted Vikander for her acting ability first; the risk for Uthaug was asking the dramatic actress to carry such a demanding physical movie. After extreme training to get in shape, the disciplined former ballerina exceeded expectations: Her Lara is athletic, tough, wily, strong-willed, and believable, as Vikander performed most of her own stunts. “Being a dancer helped her with the choreography for the fights,” said Uthaug. “She has that kind of muscle memory from her dancing.”
Every day she worked out with trainers in the early morning and went into makeup before the day’s complement of running, shooting, archery, and chasm jumping. When Vikander swings through the jungle, it’s not like Alexander Skarsgard’s pixelated Tarzan. It looks real.
What this Lara Croft does not have is big boobs. “The studio never discussed that at all,” said Uthaug. “The original Lara’s breasts are triangles. I saw some funny mockups online and Twitter complaining about the breasts not being correct. Lara Croft is about her inner strength and overcoming obstacles, her initiation into fighting and kicking ass, her solving puzzles and riddles and outsmarting the enemy. That hasn’t anything to do with breast size.”