We see some opening scenes where Lara Croft interacts with women at the gym, and then later she meets with Kristin Scott Thomas’ Ana. These are brief moments though, and the bulk of the movie takes place on the cursed island of Yamatai. As Vikander points out, Lara is literally the only woman there. Fans of the video game might be surprised by this; there is a canonical basis for including at least two women of color in the film alongside Lara, after all, so it’s worth asking: what happened to Sam and Joslin?
Rewrites are expected for any film adaptation, and that’s especially true for one that combines two games—the film uses the main plot from Tomb Raider (2013) while mixing in details from Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015). Lara makes her way to Yamatai still, but it’s to find her father rather than to make an archaeological discovery, and she battles against Trinity’s men rather than a cult of religious fanatics. With adaptations, it is inevitable that details will drop out. It’s frustrating though that in this narrative shuffle, two new roles were written for male characters, Richard Croft and Lu Ren; the women who braved Yamatai alongside Lara in the games, meanwhile, somehow didn’t make the cut.
This absence of the women is particularly egregious when we look at Sam. In the first game, Sam Nishimura is introduced as the videographer and Lara’s best friend from college. It’s the Nishimura family who funds the Yamatai expedition, and in the game it’s Sam who tells us the tale of Himiko, not Lara or Richard—"she loves telling this story," Lara says. Sam jokes that she’s Himiko’s ancestor, and the comics hint her ancestors once lived on Yamatai. It’s Sam who is kidnapped by Mathias—rather than Richard—because they believe her to be the perfect vessel for Himiko’s reincarnation. As opposed to Richard just having a love of Asian history, Sam provides an actual cultural connection to the island, something I feel is important when we consider properties like Tomb Raider, Uncharted, or Indiana Jones; this isn’t just another story of a white explorer digging through cursed Asian ruins.
Sam is important not only from a plot-building perspective but from an emotional one as well. The Dark Horse comics, which bridge the gap between the games, tell us that Lara’s relationship with Sam is one of the most significant ones in her life, and it explains why Lara is so distraught, then pushed to become a killer, after Sam is taken. Nearly every comic arc features Sam in some way; while the two women have a falling out at the end of the fifth arc, we still understand that Sam is an important part of Lara’s life.
Sam is one of the biggest motivations for Lara’s transformation from a naive archaeologist to a brave heroine. Despite her fear and discomfort, Lara continuously fights against Mathias precisely because he puts Sam and the others in danger. This desire to protect her friends at all costs is what makes Lara such a compelling character in the game. She’s not yet the hardened adventurer; she’s just a young woman trying to keep herself and her friends alive. Sam’s connection to Himiko is important, but Lara’s connection to Sam is even more so; in contrast to earlier iterations, Sam helps to make Lara a more fully realized, emotional, believable character. This arc, sadly, is missing from the film; the absence of Sam and the others ends up actually making Lara's overall characterization weaker.
Some may argue that we at least got Daniel Wu as Lu Ren, but Lu Ren isn’t an actual analogue for Sam. As a Chinese character, he has zero connection to Himiko. Unlike Sam, he meets Lara right before the expedition; he’s coerced into taking her to Yamatai, and their camaraderie is convenient rather than organic. If anything, Lu Ren reads more like a replacement for Joslin Reyes.
Like Lu Ren, it’s Reyes who helps protect the rest of the group and who is unhappy about traveling to Yamatai; Reyes also rightfully questions Lara’s motives, and only later begrudgingly befriends her. Like Sam’s connection to Himiko, having Reyes question Lara’s interest in the artifacts of other countries seems like it could’ve been another way to help ground this dated character in modern sensibilities. (Cue the scene of Erik Killmonger in the museum in Black Panther.)
In the end, the character who sidelines Sam and Lara's stories the most in the film is Lara’s own father, Richard. It’s Richard who has the connection to Himiko, and its his directions that lead them to Yamatai, not Lara’s. It’s Richard whom Lara fights for, not Sam. And it's Richard who stitches up Lara rather than Lara learning how to close her own wound as she’s rushing to save another woman.
One can’t help but see how much of a missed opportunity this is. Not only is Lara robbed of several female friendships and moments where she's forced to come up with her own ingenious plan, we’re also robbed of more onscreen representation of women of color. Couldn’t the time spent writing in Richard and Lu Ren have been used to adapt Sam and Reyes? Why did Richard even need to be in this tale? People often balk when women of color ask to be added to narratives, but what happens when it’s the production itself that actively erases them?
Erasing Sam and Joslin is as much a disservice to them as it is to Lara, and to the work the rebooted games did to reshape and humanize her character. Why is a film that's being touted as feminist surrounding its protagonist with men? Do we really still think a woman can only be strong if she’s "one of the guys"? Do we still find female relationships weak, or not a safe bet for the box office?
For being a film about an adventurer, it’s too bad Tomb Raider isn’t all that brave.
Images: Warner Bros., SquareEnix, and Dark Horse Comics
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