How do you make 'Tomb Raider' fresh? 'Cast Alicia Vikander'

Roar Uthaug's reboot has plenty of action, but the director says action films only work if you care about the characters. You'll care about Lara Croft, he predicts.

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How do you bring a new perspective to an action hero as iconic as Lara Croft? Roar Uthaug, director of the upcoming film " Tomb Raider ," reckons he's cracked it in just four words: "You cast Alicia Vikander."

Lara Croft's story has been told and retold over 11 video games since she backflipped into our lives in 1996. She's also appeared in two runs of comics and was played by Angelina Jolie in "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) and its 2003 sequel, "The Cradle of Life." Now Lara's back for "Tomb Raider," a movie reboot loosely based on the 2013 game of the same name. And Norwegian director Uthaug says Vikander will show us the character's more human side.

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Director Roar Uthaug and an ominous-looking wall decoration.

Christian Black

"It was important to us that this was a new origin story for the big screen and that there's a new Lara Croft that we want to introduce to audiences," Uthaug told me this week. "We wanted to create, of course, this kick-ass female action hero, but she's also vulnerable. And that was important in this movie, that there's an emotional connection there. That she's relatable."

"Tomb Raider" introduces us to a younger Lara who hasn't yet begun her tomb-raiding career. She's been making ends meet as a fast-food bike courier in London since her aristocrat father Richard Croft, played by "The Wire" star Dominic West, disappeared while investigating the legend of an ancient curse. 

After discovering a hidden stash of his old documents, Lara sets out to solve the mystery of his death. Sea captain Lu Ren, played by Daniel Wu, who was previously seen in "Geostorm" and "Warcraft," backs her up. 

But while the legends warn of a cursed queen who spreads death wherever she goes, Lara faces more down-to-earth threats. She's pursued by bikers, knife-wielding thieves and mercenaries armed with machine guns over an exhausting journey that takes her from the streets of east London to a lost island off the coast of Japan. Even the natural world has it in for Lara, with stormy seas, slippery cliffs and regular old gravity conspiring to make her life miserable.

Vikander, who won an Oscar for "The Danish Girl" and played a humanoid robot in "Ex Machina," threw herself into training, packing on 13 pounds (6 kilograms) of muscle to meet the physical demands of the role.

"Alicia works really hard on everything she does," Uthaug said. "And she worked extremely hard in preparing for this role, both with her trainer and also with our stunt coordinators to learn the fights, to learn the moves, to learn the archery, to climb, then to jump and swim and to dodge traps. And she was just a real trooper."

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We're not in Shoreditch anymore: Lara Croft goes from East London delivery girl to full-fledged jungle explorer.

Graham Bartholomew

Despite Vikander's feats of endurance, Uthaug says the story wouldn't work if Lara didn't also grow as a character. A decent action set piece is important, he says, but he doesn't believe films should aim to replicate the immersive experience of directing a character in a video game. 

"I think the emotional connection is so much more important in a movie," he said. 

Uthaug is no stranger to action films. He previously directed catastrophe drama "The Wave" and the action thriller "Escape" (or "Flukt"). He says he expects fans to be surprised by the movie's emotional depth. But it's possible viewers will be more impressed by the depth of the gaping chasms Lara spends much of the film dangling over.

"In any movie, but especially in big action adventure movies, you need that emotional heart to really care about the people that're running away from the explosions," Uthaug said, laughing.

Lara's relationship with her lost father is by far the most important thing in her life, and Uthaug says it's no coincidence there's no romantic subplot in the film. "I really feel that the emotional heart of this movie is the father-daughter story," he said. "And we didn't want Lara to have other relationships that would take away from that."

He also hopes viewers will be surprised by antagonist Mathias Vogel. The character is brought to sweaty, compelling life by Walton Goggins, who's best known for "The Hateful Eight" and "Justified." Vogel's hunt for the tomb that brought Richard Croft to the island has kept him isolated there, but his luck changes when Lara arrives.

"He's not this kind of mustache-twirling supervillain with a plan to conquer the world," Uthaug said. "He's a man on a mission. And he's been on this island for seven years, and he's really tired and he just wants to find that tomb and get home."

I can sympathize. After all that running, jumping and corpse-hunting, everyone involved in this movie is entitled to a long rest.

"Tomb Raider" opened in the UK on March 6, and hits theaters in Australia on March 15 and in the US on March 16.  

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