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ACTORS Daniel Wu as Lu Ren and Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.—The Washington Post
ACTORS Daniel Wu as Lu Ren and Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider.—The Washington Post

YOU could be forgiven for not immediately recognising Lara Croft in the latest incarnation of Tomb Raider. Gone are the massive breasts, microscopic shorts and garter-like gun holsters. In their place: the tiny but sinewy Oscar winner Alicia Vikander in a filthy tank top, cargo pants and sensible boots.

The first time we see her onscreen, she’s in the middle of losing a kickboxing match wearing jogging shorts and a sports bra, but pretty soon she’s changing into a hoodie, black pants and sneakers so that she can go to work as a London bike messenger.

The latest Lara follows in the footsteps of other recent heroines, who have turned away from the skin-baring spandex that makes fighting crime look like a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen. She may not have the body of a Playboy centrefold, but she’s a more believable combatant. Some iterations of Lara Croft from the video game that invented her are so top heavy, it’s hard to imagine the adventuring heiress walking upright much less engaging an enemy, what with the awful back pain she must be suffering.

This Lara Croft is more in line with Gal Gadot’s muscular lead in Wonder Woman or Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in the Hunger Games series, who proved a female action star could kick butt somehow without showing cleavage. The trend continues with the upcoming Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson. Although the comic book always accentuated the character’s hourglass figure, the first images of the captain’s costume in the movie has all the sex appeal of a Nascar jumpsuit.

In the current era, when we’re more attuned to power imbalances and female objectification, you might wonder if toning down the emphasis on Lara’s looks was a discussion that happened when it was time to make clothing choices.

“It wasn’t an obvious part of the conversation, but it was about Lara Croft in today’s world,” Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood said of working on Tomb Raider. “And, of course, Alicia’s take on it was a very athletic approach to the character.”

In fact, Lara’s main uniform was inspired by the video game, which was rebooted in 2013, and also features a protagonist who wears a tank top and pants. She is, however, more voluptuous than Vikander, who told Vogue that, “what little I have I kind of pushed up.”

But creating the illusion of massive curves wasn’t a concern during production the way it was last time around, when Angelina Jolie played Lara Croft in 2001 and 2003. The actress, who was already plenty buxom, added even more with padding, and the sheer magnitude of her breasts created a real conundrum for the first movie’s director, Simon West.

“The main decision was whether to shoot above the breasts or below the breasts,” he told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “They’re such a big thing to frame around.”

In the new Tomb Raider, there was more thought put into, say, the size of Lara’s boots. According to Atwood, Vikander had about 20 pairs, including some that had more of a platform to make her look taller for wide shots. Another pair was secretly running shoes underneath a boot-like facade so that Vikander — who did many of her own stunts — could sprint through the jungle more easily.

In every wardrobe choice, there was an emphasis on practicality over sexuality. Vikander’s pants, for example, had stretchy seams so that she could more easily free climb cliffs and take down villains three times her size. That’s not to say the new Lara lacks sex appeal, it’s just that her allure doesn’t come from her get-ups.

The costume wasn’t “trying to be sexy”, Atwood said. “It was sexy because of the quality of the person wearing it as opposed to the style of the costume.”

Vikander transformed her body for the role, working hard to get in shape, “seriously harder than anyone I’ve ever worked with”, Atwood said. Vikander’s trainer, Magnus Lygdbak, told Entertainment Tonight she put on about 12 pounds of muscle during three months of hard-core training. It was all part of the plan to present a Tomb Raider that was “less boobs, more fighting”, as actor Dominic West, who plays Lara’s father, told Vogue.

In one scene, Lara and her new accomplice, played by Daniel Wu, wear almost identical outfits. They’re both in tank tops and pants, though he has an open button-down on top while she wears a hoodie. It’s conspicuous simply because we’re so used to seeing female characters wear a lot less than their male counterparts. The question now is whether costume designers will have to start thinking more about the way they dress female characters in the future. Atwood hasn’t seen evidence of those conversations yet, but she also thinks the discussion has to go deeper than costumes.

“I’m sure that there will be dialogue about how women are portrayed,” she said. “I think that will be dictated more by how the story is scripted as opposed to the actual clothes.” —By arrangement with The Washington Post

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2018