I have previously expressed a certain theory in this space about movie stars and the roles they choose, so I won’t get too far into rehashing it, because regular readers know the gist. The short version is that no true movie star takes on a role that is bigger than they are, and anyone who became a star based on a single role with which they are identified is not on the same level as one who didn’t. Easiest example: Tom Cruise is not Ethan Hunt, but Robert Downey Jr. is Tony Stark. Very simple and straightforward.
This is to take nothing away from someone’s talent, but simply serves to place them in the proper context when we talk about the Hollywood Star System. It’s a clinical and scientific thing, not an emotional one, and has served me well for lo, these many years I have been espousing it. However, there is the rare exception to this rule, which is when a rising star signs on for such a part, and through brilliant execution, and maybe a small amount of celluloid magic, the combination of actor and role elevates them both beyond any level we might have expected for either. The most recent example of this cinematic phenomenon is the performance of Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER, in which the petite, Oscar-winning actress of Swedish origin plays a tough, rugged English adventurer and knocks the ball so far out of the park, she might as well be Babe Ruth.
I will admit to enjoying Vikander’s prior work, such as her Oscar-winning supporting turn in The Danish Girl and her performance in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, in which she convincingly played a humanoid artificial intelligence so well that I wondered where the character left off and she began. Clearly, she is a talented performer, but there was never anything to her work that blew me away and made me want to automatically see everything she did. Indeed, when it was announced in 2016 that she would be taking on the role of Lara Croft in a reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise, I responded as many did — with an indifferent yawn.
Then I saw the movie. Two hours after I entered the theater a mild fan of a talented actress, I exited a fanatic. There’s no question in my mind that Vikander should be one of the biggest stars on the planet, and I chastised myself for the previous pooh-poohing of both her casting and the very idea of raising this piece of IP from the dead. I started thinking about other major tentpoles she could carry and how to alert the rest of the universe to just how good she is, so that we could see her far more often on the big screen.
The fact that reviews for Tomb Raider have been mixed (and in some cases, even bad) is somewhat baffling to me, because the movie is exactly what you think it should be: a harmless popcorn flick that will give you a good time for 118 minutes. In fact, my Six Word Review® was, “Ridiculous, silly movie fun. Vikander rules.” Anyone who thought it was going to be anything else should have their head examined, and while the continued dominance of Black Panther clearly stunted Tomb Raider’s box office last weekend, the mediocre reviews couldn’t have helped. The reboot opened to just $23.6 million domestically, and while it is already north of $100 million in foreign grosses, it’s hard to pretty this up too much, for either the movie itself or the industry as a whole.
The thing is, it’s becoming increasingly clear that in order to successfully launch a female-driven action franchise like this, you need an Oscar-winning (or at least Oscar-nominated) actor to jump on board, and even then, there’s no real guarantee of a sequel, regardless of whether the first film worked or not. Certainly this is true for this particular character, what with Angelina Jolie playing the first iteration of Lara Croft right after winning her own Supporting Actress Oscar for Girl, Interrupted. She went on to star in the hit action movies Wanted and Salt, neither of which saw a sequel, while fellow Oscar winner Charlize Theron could only power Atomic Blonde to an $18.2 million opening. And that film was based on an obscure graphic novel, not a hugely successful video game.
Having said that, the disappointing opening for Tomb Raider isn’t all that dissimilar to the case of Jennifer Lawrence and Red Sparrow, which opened to $16.8 million two weeks earlier. Yes, the latter film is a hard-R and much darker in tone — also, not nearly as fun or engaging, in my opinion — but both films are led by Oscar-winning actresses whose bodies may not scream “action hero,” but are able to survive in these films on their wits. I don’t believe Red Sparrow was designed to launch a franchise, but clearly Tomb Raider was, so… will it? That’s the question.
Now that they’ve reestablished the character of Lara Croft and introduced audiences to Vikander, who was generally well-received in the role, does Tomb Raider merit a sequel, even if it loses money? If we figure the budget was somewhere between the $90 million the studio claims it was and the more likely $100 million it probably hit, then throw in, say, another $60 million to $75 million for marketing, then the movie has to do north of $325 million to break even. If we’re being generous and factoring in all the ancillary revenues, we can safely cut that down to an even $300M, for the sake of simplicity. Judging by the early numbers, that target figure seems unlikely. Throw in the fact that you have another big movie opening this week in the Pacific Rim sequel, and a bigger one next week in Ready Player One, and it becomes even less so.
There is, however, still a lot of life left in this franchise as far as the foreign market is concerned, so it’s entirely possible that Tomb Raider could come close to making what it needs to in order to justify a sequel. Even if it doesn’t, though, I still think it’s one of those rare times when a studio — in this case Warner Bros. — should bite the bullet and move forward with a sequel even without a guaranteed profit on the first film. The reason, quite frankly, is Vikander. Betting on her is a strong wager, because she is one of those rare actors whose star is only going to get brighter. The studio doesn’t even need to bump it up to the $150 million range for the next installment, and could instead keep costs lower by banking on Vikander’s considerable acting chops to take the pressure off the action sequences. She more than proved her mettle in her tomb raiding debut, and if there is considerable build up to the second movie, it should do what most sequels do — improve on the grosses of the first film.
I try very hard to keep from getting too jaded about the movie business and how it operates, and movie like Tomb Raider, shockingly, certainly help. Seeing an actress become a genuine sensation, right there on the screen in front of me, gives me hope for Hollywood’s fading star system at a time when they’re in short supply, and we need them more than ever. As long as there continue to be performers like Vikander who can carry the day on the strength of their talent and charisma, there’s every reason to keep that hope alive. Now, if the audience will just start showing up, we might actually get somewhere together.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @NeilTuritz. He’ll more than likely respond. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Unduly Noted with Neil Turitz and Ryan Beeman, which is available on iTunes.