Brow Beat

Tomb Raider Sells a Message of Female Empowerment. So What Happened to One of the Game’s Most Important Female Characters?

Lara Croft and Sam Nishimura in the 2013 Square Enix game Tomb Raider.
Lara Croft’s best gal pal Sam Nishimura is notably absent from the videogame adaptation.
Square Enix

Ever since her debut in the original 1996 videogame Tomb Raider, Lara Croft has been the subject of feminist debate, mainly due to her disproportionate chest size and skimpy shorts. But in 2013, Square Enix’s videogame reboot sought to take a less objectifying approach to the character, dressing her in a more practical tank top and pants. Her face is covered with scratches, her hair messily tossed into a ponytail. Players pilot her not as a sexy, gymnastics-performing ingénue, but as a capable young woman directing her own survival.

The new Tomb Raider film, which reboots the movie franchise after the two Angelina Jolie-starring installments in the early 2000s, takes most of those empowering changes to heart. As Slate’s Inkoo Kang notes in her review, the focus is on what her body can do, rather than how it looks. Indeed, how Lara looks in the new movie owes everything to the 2013 game, with Alicia Vikander roughing herself up as much as Hollywood will allow, while wearing the same pair of green cargo pants. And the film’s marketing campaign has tried to make this a selling point. At the screening I intended, we were invited to cheer for strong female characters. And yet for all the film takes from the 2013 game, it ditched one of the film’s strongest female characters, and the other half of its central relationship: Lara’s best friend, Sam.

While the new film sets Lara on a quest to find her father on the island of Yamatai, in the 2013 game on which it’s based, it’s Samantha “Sam” Nishimura, a documentary filmmaker and Lara’s best friend, whom she sets out to save on that island. In the game, Sam falls prey to an all-male cult led by the maniacal Mathias Vogel (the character played in the movie by Walton Goggins). The cult kidnaps Sam and attempts to transplant the demon soul of Queen Himiko, the same ancient queen who haunts the movie, into her body.

Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) and Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) wield their weapons in Tomb Raider.
Lu Ren, you can stay.
Ilzek Kitshoff, © 2017 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.

Though it’s certainly nothing new to slot a woman in the role of a damsel in distress—as with Chris Pine’s own dad in distress in the new Wrinkle of Time, putting a man in such a role is arguably more refreshing—Sam is so much more than that, with the game going deep into her and Lara’s relationship. In fact, the game includes so many flashbacks to establish Lara and Sam’s friendship that it has inspired a small legion of lesbian shippers. The character is far from perfect (she’s made into a damsel because she, the only Asian character, is a direct descendant of Himiko), but Sam and Lara complement each other perfectly. Extrovert Sam draws contemplative Lara out of her shell, and the two women each believe in each other’s professional endeavors.

Leaving out Sam, and replacing her with Lara’s father, makes it so the film’s emotional core is the relationship between a man and a woman, rather than—in what would have been almost unprecedented for an action blockbuster—the friendship of two women. With so many classic films where female moviegoers are expected to identify with male friendship, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to Step Brothers, why couldn’t Tomb Raider center its story on the relationship between two women?

The film, in stark contrast to the game, barely passes the Bechdel Test. Lara hardly has any female friendships at all, save “Sophie” (Hannah John-Kamen), who goads her after the film’s opening boxing match before disappearing forevermore. And while there’s a hint at the end that any sequel would feature a female villain, it’s too little, too late.

Isolating Lara as the sole female protagonist in her own story also boxes her into a kind of “not like other girls” characterization. Whereas the message of the game was that Lara was a protector and ally to other smart, strong women, the film conveys a different message: She is the only such woman in her entire cinematic universe.