Being Lara Croft, or, We Are All Sci-Fi

[Editor’s note: Minor updates have been made to this article, March 2019]

Now that Eidos Interactive has come out with another iteration of the long-standing Tomb Raider series just in time for Christmas, too, ensuring that legions of Lara fans will spend the balance of their winter months dully stimulated and largely unproductive this might be a good time to look into Lara Croft’s skyrocketing status as a sex symbol.

Trouble is, Lara might look back. For anyone who recognizes the Lara Croft trademarks in this photo of current Real-World-Lara title holder Lara Weller the leveled pistols, the tan shorts, the holster straps around the legs what’s most striking is that Lara is facing the camera. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that Lara is facing the camera down. If so, the camera has already lost, and you along with it. Lara’s guns are drawn. In a moment, the camera will be a bullet-riddled, smoking heap; you, sitting there serenely reading this article, have been caught unawares.

However, unlike Lara Weller, the videogame’s Lara Croft never makes eye contact with the person gazing on her in her case, the player. So it seems as if she doesn’t even know the player’s there, even as the player makes all of her decisions. At first, it’s easy to think Lara Weller is performing a Lara Croft who is suddenly none too pleased to learn that we’ve been looking at her all this time. But Weller’s Lara is sexual spectacle at the same time that she embodies rage against the spectacle. She appears pissed that someone is looking and offers to pay back the sexual gaze, not with sexual dominance, but simple annihilation.

But still, this cheesy photo fascinates me. It may be telling, too, that Lara’s potent and powerful body, her angry, focused stare, and her guns, all fascinate me in more or less equal measure.

If the Lara facing us is a living contradiction, at once a sex symbol and a rejection of the objectifying gaze, the videogame’s Lara Croft — mute, unreal, and looking the other way — is a virtual contradiction, at once a sort of riot grrrl and a sort of fetish. While retaining this visible problematic, which is complex but theorizable, Lara Weller’s paradoxical performances herald a process of media diversification that threatens to make Croft incomprehensible, by attaching multiple narratives to her, multiple and often oppositional stories of her history and origin. As Lara Croft’s image proliferates through various media, she is becoming more diffuse and simultaneously more mythic.

Lara Weller is the latest of several live-action models to represent Lara Croft. Their performances would take her out of the virtual if it were not for a certain distance maintained by the performers: Nell McAndrew, an earlier real-world Lara, refers to Lara Croft in the third person rather than the first. She and the other models represent Lara without quite becoming her. Once Lara Croft is made flesh in the first person when the rumored-to-be-upcoming Tomb Raider live-action movie is finally released her virtuality, today her main distinguishing characteristic, will become only another story of her birth. This is another reason to examine the phenomenon of Lara Croft, and to do it quick. Lara’s incursion into multimedia is unstoppable, it seems. Soon, such a study will probably become much trickier.

In fact, Lara Croft is already expanding. In addition to securing Lara Weller’s representation in the physical world, she has also been imagined more broadly in the virtual one. This happened when, in addition to her day job as a distantiated avatar, she took on a sideline gig, joining Cindy Margolis as fellow spokesperson for the Sci Fi Channel. Both recite the mantra, “I Am Sci Fi”, and indeed they are, at least if “sci-fi” is understood as seems more and more the case these days to refer not to conjectural technologies but to definitely existing, if new, ones. We are the future, and at the same time we are alien to ourselves.

Margolis, for instance, found her career at least as much through the Internet as through the more traditional venues of television and glossy print where models have generally gotten their start. Thus Margolis signals the existence, hypothetically at least, of an Internet celebrity someone whose public image is downloadable first and foremost. Her TV spot imagines her as such by extracting her from the physical world: she sits bikini-clad in a Tron-like cyber-cum-physical-space, reading a magazine and patiently awaiting an opportunity to upload herself. When it arrives, she stands and, at the last minute, springs deftly into a hip-cocked pose while an elaborate contraption weaves a beachscape behind her.

This TV image may be seem quite sci-fi but the downloaded still is quite familiar: the grinning adolescent on the other end of the modem connection is rewarded for Cindy’s efforts with a sunny snapshot of her in a tropical locale, recuperated through all this gizmocracy into the mundane exoticism of a Sports Illustrated photo shoot. The practiced virtuosity of her pose suggests that she’s gone through this drill countless times before, but she seems content with her regimen, happy to be admired or, at least, resigned to the lusty gazes aimed upon her. This is where she has always been.

In her cybermetaphoric room with no walls, Cindy’s job is to acknowledge and cooperate with efforts to gaze on her. By contrast, Tomb Raider‘s Lara never returns or becomes aware of the gaze; her world is one of many walls, and the fourth is never broken.

At first it seems Lara can be easily understood in her sealed tombs, which are different from Cindy’s but every bit as sanitary and simple: she is fixed beneath the male gaze, unable to return it. (Eidos Interactive’s “Where the Boys Are” ad campaign assumes Tomb Raider‘s demographic to be almost exclusively male, a point I’ll return to later.) Since Lara rarely turns around, she is freely available for looking at: she is always the center of the frame, the focus of all attentions. What’s more, in the original game, she’s rendered in a way that fragments and fetishizes her: she has no joints, so her body is a loose stack of unconnected parts.

But it’s more complicated than that. Should you happen to find yourself captivated watching slender Lara bound lithely through Tomb Raider‘s dark, moist-looking caverns, you will do so without quite forgetting that Lara is, in a sense, you. Like the stranded Marine in Doom, the progenitor of first-person shooters, Lara awaits your input before she makes her decisions. Lara and Doom‘s Marine both look where you look, and their bodies intrude on the screen to stand in for yours. A primary difference is that the sole bodily presence of Doom‘s Marine is a hirsute arm, gripping a phallic, super-lethal weapon that bobs stiffly in time with his stealthy walk. I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t rather be Lara. She is far more nuanced. Self-possessed in her hip-swaying walk but spry and potent when she leaps and scrambles, she has the build of a rock-climber and the carriage of an elegant socialite.

It makes sense that the interface between player and virtual body in Tomb Raider is trickier than the point-and-shoot simplicity of Doom. Lara can climb hand-over-hand, crawl, backflip, tuck and roll, and lower herself down steep drops. The player must learn how to “do” these things, and if Lara never returns the ever-present look, she demonstrates her awareness of the player in other ways: her only spoken word is a terse, slightly impatient “no” if you try to make her perform a move that isn’t possible. To the novice player at an impasse, there seems to be a frustrated potentiality in the way she stands and breathes, the user’s ineptitude holding all her agility and lethality at bay. In her poised impatience, she teaches. Eventually, when the cntl, alt, ins, and end keys become second nature, this impatience vanishes. There are no more impasses, only a fluid, reflex connection, a virtuosity that seems to put Lara and the player both in the same body, so that it’s no longer clear which is the origin of her performances.

And even if she incorporates my banality, my ordinariness, still, she’s beautiful. The player’s gaze is a strange closed circle of the desiring look and the beautiful, powerful exhibition. In fact, the look and the exhibition are one and the same, bound into a single, narcissistic contract safer and more symmetrical than anything Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was ever able to dream up.

Damn. No wonder Tomb Raider‘s so popular.


If Lara is you, then you, by extension, are sci-fi. Among the various available milieus in Tomb Raider 3 is a tour of the palatial Croft home, an exquisite mansion with a specialized and elaborate gymnasium, a canopy bedroom, a long kitchen, a hedge maze, and a shooting range. A woman of action and few words, Lara speaks to you here and at no other time in the Tomb Raider series. In the gym she outlines the steps involved in leaping and getting hold of a ledge, climbing into a narrow space, sprinting and rolling, shimmying, and so forth. In the pool she tells you how to tread the surface and swim underwater. Strange that for all Lara’s grace and athletic prowess, she has yet to learn the basic freestyle.

For The Last Revelation‘s training session, one Werner Von Croy takes over these duties and a sixteen-year-old Lara, having apparently forgotten how to be herself, becomes the acolyte. Maybe this is just as well, since Tomb Raider 3‘s training session seems to have a glitch or two. Lara often praises your performance when you seem actually to have not done at all well, for instance, much the same way Flight Simulator 2000‘s flight instructor sometimes tells you, “That was nearly a perfect flight!” even as you taxi off the runway and into a control tower.

Another glitch, more aesthetic than technical, is the occasional moment of dislocation that is probably intrinsic to the exercise but feels pretty strange nevertheless. “Welcome to my home,” Lara says. “Feel free to look around.” Of course, there’s no one there except her or rather, you playing her. At your behest she jogs up the stairs, glancing this way and that, but you know that she’s seen this house plenty of times. If it weren’t for you, she would surely appear schizophrenic, with her self-addressing dialogue and sudden unfamiliarity with the intimate details of her own life. As it is, she seems to have given you her body on loan, and now you are the representation. Her voice floats ethereally. You become a burdensome and needless intermediary separating her discourse and will from her body, and you must make yourself as transparent as possible, as Lara-the-Voice issues a command and Lara-the-Body obeys.

The Last Revelation feels more comfortable. With the injection of Von Croy, Lara is back wholly within the screen’s frame, and you are back to playing her as a straightforward role. But maybe you have to go through the bizarre episode in Lara’s home as well. Real learning is hard, and who else but Lara can teach you how to be Lara?

The Croft Estate is where all the tough learning takes place. So it may be appropriate that Lara goes back home for her Sci Fi Channel spot, to pass an idle evening in her living room struggling to unlock that Grand Poobah of all computer games: Nolan Bushnell’s Pong. But Pong ultimately defeats her, and calls her a “loser” into the bargain. This pisses Lara off and she kicks in the TV. She can kick in all the TV’s she likes; she has still lost. It’s a funny commercial, the joke being its mockery of “progress” as a quality imbued with inherent, and transparent, goodness. Lara is an icon of a technological sophistication that makes Pong look even more ridiculously primitive than it does already, and yet for all of the hypermodern technology that has gone into her design, she still can’t beat the goddamn thing. Between losing the game and kicking the TV, Lara says her obligatory “I Am Sci Fi” but her speech pattern is stiff and monotone, reminiscent of the clunky voice synthesizers that were the best computers could come up with in Pong‘s day. We’ve gotten nowhere fast.

The way Lara recites the “I Am Sci Fi” slogan might help solve one of the commercial’s implicit stumpers: why in the hell would someone of Lara’s obvious wealth spend her free time playing a crappy computer game? By giving her the voice of a 1970s computer, the commercial aligns her with the game she’s playing. It would seem that at home, her place of quiet introspection and the place where her self seems most fragmented and disembodied Lara has a moment much like HAL’s when he sings “Daisy” in that other mockery of progress, 2001: A Space Odyssey. HAL has an origin and Lara has one, too, at least in the Sci Fi Channel ad campaign’s mythos where celebrities reinterpret their own celebrity status in paradoxical ways. The Sci Fi Channel’s Cindy Margolis inhabits the Internet as a physical space; the Sci Fi Channel’s Lara Croft, virtual and therefore beneath and beyond consciousness, knows that she’s a videogame.

If her Sci Fi Channel spot gives Lara a brief glimmer of clarity, it’s the exception. There are many Lara Crofts, and the Sci Fi Channel’s is the only one with this ontological insight. The other Laras are more pedestrian, and each new upgrade or advertising contract Lara receives, each new live action model who represents her in the physical world, brings a different backstory and a different set of assumptions about what Lara means, about which of her behaviors are most relevant in identifying her, about which media tradition she is continuing, satirizing, expanding, or redirecting.

For Tomb Raider 3‘s ad she’s a British secret agent. So she satirizes James Bond (and, not incidentally, herself) in the process of serving God, Queen, and country: where Bond’s Q makes a big production out of his carefully-crafted covert weapons, Lara’s “Gunther” just hands her a naked, and unusually large, grenade launcher. Why waste time with 007-style subterfuge, Lara wonders, when you can solve your conflicts through plainly overwhelming firepower? She doesn’t mince around when it comes to looking good, either: after she is told that she will also be equipped with “new outfits” for her latest adventure, the top-secret laboratory in which the commercial is set transforms into a fashion runway show, complete with disco lights and a parade of models who show off several abbreviated croptop-and-rifle ensembles. Far from denying or apologizing for Lara’s slightly out-of-place, scantily clad sexiness, her Eidos creators here loudly proclaim that they know all about it, thank you. They’re even willing to completely change ad styles mid-commercial if that’ll call yet more attention to Lara’s body than is being paid already.

If Lara’s attire is pretty consistent, her backstory certainly isn’t. For The Last Revelation‘s spot her identity as a British spy totally evaporates she turns down an apparent bribe not for the greater good of the empire, but because she “only play[s] for sport.” And Nell McAndrew describes her as “independent” without mentioning her Secret Service affiliation at all. Neither does Lara Croft’s on-line “bio,” which paints her as an inveterate wanderluster who prefers her own company to that of others, an aristocratic child who is nevertheless drawn to the middlebrow field of archaeology at the tender age of 16.

So is Lara a sex goddess, or grim law enforcer? a hobbyist or a professional spy? A well-to-do woman of leisure and travel, or a career archaeologist? It’s hard to say. And at any rate, if we’re going to get a fix on Lara’s identity, we should first pin down what happens to her minute-by-minute, and it turns out even this isn’t very easy.

Tomb Raider 2 – Commercial – where the boys are? (Long version)

Her Last Revelation ad has her fleeing from an enraged Tyrannosaurus Rex, and then flying out the back of a minivan on a jet ski, with a caption reading, “A Girl’s Gotta Have a Little Fun!” to provide transition. As though an enormous reptile snapping at your ass is somehow fun. In keeping with its faux movie-preview style, the ad keeps the two scenes discrete; they are isolated visual bullets, unresolved cliffhangers and synopses of Lara’s thrill-seeking lifestyle. But an ad for a French auto company causally connects these same scenes by substituting the caption with an additional second or two of linear footage in which Lara selects the minivan from her inventory and uses it to evade the dinosaur. As an event independent of the ads’ respective renderings of it, Lara’s conflict with the dinosaur is incoherent she escapes with the aid of her sporty European van, and at the same time she does not.

What Lara is and indeed, what she does and what happens to her depend on what is being bought and sold with her assistance. From this conclusion it isn’t going far to say that Lara is the product being sold, and as it turns out, her car commercial supports this notion. Not only does Lara solve all her problems with the fleet of compact vehicles at her disposal (she uses the other three in her inventory ring by the time the thirty-second spot is over), but she also, through the magic of the animated long shot, manages to become the car. One second she is sprinting, stern and resolute but also a bit panicky and about one-tenth of a step ahead of the Tyrannosaurus’s slavering jaws. The next, a Cordoba Vario minivan is speeding along where she was and, for an instant at least, Lara is nowhere to be seen.

As far as automobiles are concerned, France would seem to be of a like mind with the United States, where people have a way of getting themselves and their SUVs all mixed up. Or to put it as US car commercials tend to that is, more kindly we think of our vehicles as extensions of ourselves. From childhood on, Tomb Raider‘s Lara may have preferred her own company to that of others, but the French commercial’s Lara resolves this deeply-embedded issue when she wraps herself in that cozy metal egg. Now, suddenly, Lara considers breaking her hermitage and doing a little dating: The commercial ends when she stops to pick up six sexy beachbum hitchhikers, first selecting a vehicle with enough payload to transport them and their surfboards comfortably.

The message here, paradoxical but not uncommon in Western advertising, is that cocooning yourself in products can make your life a less lonely place. The campaign for Tomb Raider 2, though more unusual, has a ring of intuitive truth it implies that products actually make our lives more lonely, only we don’t care. Over at least four separate spots, a series of public spaces are shown devoid of people men’s restrooms, bowling alleys, pool halls, basketball courts, and strip bars have all been left post-apocalyptically desolate because Tomb Raider 2 is “Where The Boys Are”. This isn’t the exclamation of a girl who’s gotta have a little fun, as in Where the Boys Are ’84. The boys are not hanging around the beach hoping that an impossibly built woman will drive by in a minivan to take them home. According to the ad, “where the boys are” is at home already neglecting physical activity, social lives, and the elimination of bodily waste materials in favor of helping Lara Croft negotiate endless tombs, play for sport, and vanquish evil.

Now that’s more like it. Lara’s not the only one who prefers her own company to that of others. So do the boys. All of them.

If that’s the case, then this probably applies to me, too. Tomb Raider‘s Lara is different from Lara Weller, her prop guns leveled right between my eyes, or Cindy Margolis, who beams cheerily at me on, a silver heart emanating from her warm and friendly spirit. They know I’m here. This might give pause. Meaning, more than she resembles even the models who stand in for her, Lara Croft resembles last year’s most unlikely sex symbol because in Being John Malkovich, John Malkovich is also unaware that we are looking, not only at or with him, but through him, making his decisions.

For Lotte Schwartz (the character in Being John Malkovich played by Cameron Diaz), all things are possible in Malkovich’s peculiar, transparent celebrity. She wants Malkovich, or she wants Maxine through Malkovich, but her sexual desire isn’t an isolated thing. It sticks itself to all sorts of other foibles and neuroses so that when she passes through John Malkovich, she imagines she’s had a grand epiphany and a connection with her ideal self. It feels so damn good for those frailties to melt away that it isn’t even about Lotte anymore, after her feckless tumble into the ditch beside the New Jersey Turnpike. She prattles on about her innermost soul and her “self-actualization as a man,” feeling that through Malkovich she’s found her one, true origin and identity. But she also goes on about the union of Woman and Man more generally, and also about the bounds of universal knowledge. Her desires color her view of herself and the world around her, and it never even occurs to her that all this may have just been a giant and possibly predictable turn-on, the feverish ecstasy of becoming your own sex object.

The “boys” in Tomb Raider 2‘s ad campaign are turned on, too. Since the ads characterize the boys by their absence, it’s tough to say too much about them for sure, but we can at least figure that one of the things they’ve invested in Lara is their sexuality among the people they’ve left patronless by going home to play Tomb Raider is an exotic dancer who idly chews gum on the stage of an empty strip club. The boys aren’t interested in the sex industry’s gaze exchange anymore. They’d much rather hone their puppeteering skills and close the distance between themselves and Lara. Not that anyone knows the boys the commercials signify them through undribbled basketballs and unattended men’s rooms. But we all know Lara. The commercial’s lifeless shots of the physical, social world are juxtaposed with tantalizing visual nibbles of Tomb Raider, Lara sprinting, blasting her pistols, rowing her canoe. Where the boys are is inside Lara, being her. Staying home and being Lara has one up on going out and being oneself.

And why stop at the boys? Just because the ad campaign thinks only boys like Lara doesn’t mean it’s so. We’ve all gotta have a little fun. If Lara provides a substitute for boys who like looking at strippers, her self-assured and righteous violence simultaneously offers girls a chance to fantasize a response to (as well as an appropriation of) this same objectifying leer. In The Last Revelation‘s training session, for instance, Werner Von Croy salivates over a teenage Lara and, when he’s not patronizing or talking down to her, plies her with sleazy come-ons (instructing her, for instance, that she’s going to catch a death of cold if she doesn’t get out of her wet clothes). After he becomes an overt antagonist, the rest of the game is, among other things, a struggle to make sure he gets what’s coming to him for his smug, chauvinistic arrogance and undisguised lechery. Deep down, at some point or another in her life, what girl hasn’t wanted to fill a catcaller full of holes?

There’s another reason it’s easy for anyone, girl or boy, to relate to Lara after n straight hours of playing Tomb Raider. Although the tombs Lara inhabits are more pristine than your workspace is likely to be nowhere in Tomb Raider‘s temples are there piles of unwashed dinner plates, baskets buried in dirty laundry, trash cans filled with crumpled up printouts of walkthroughs and cheat codes they are just about as barren. Lara’s world has a few inhabitants, generally hostile, but mostly she just sprints across vast, empty rooms and solves dusty puzzles, buried in cobwebs. Tomb Raider‘s geography has this in common with Doom and Duke Nukem, the alienscape of Myst, even the terrain of Flight Simulator 2000 which seems to bristle with life but evaporates into a mirage of hazy blocks if you get too close. Playing these games is like living in a map, or diving into a picture sent back by Pathfinder. The canals are still there, but the little green critters who made them have long since gone.

These barren, alien landscapes may be evidence of programmers making the best of a bad situation. In the days of Pong, it probably seemed inevitable that the 21st-century computer would be able to hold a conversation as well as it has always been able to play chess. As it turns out, though, the computer’s social skills haven’t really improved since Eliza, so sparsely populated landscapes are the best a computer game can provide. The Last Revelation‘s demo opens with a torchbearer who is to guide Lara through the labyrinth that confronts her only he has nothing to say. He stands as mute as she; they are alternately oblivious to each other and acutely uncomfortable in one another’s presence.

The Lara who doesn’t know she’s a videogame is, first and foremost, a loner. The Lara who does know has learned that she has to be alone. Eidos Interactive’s wet dream is to sell its product to everyone on the planet, although the folks there do seem to know this will make the Earth’s landscape as desolate as hers: we all become her, individually, and in the process we depopulate the world.

We are alien to ourselves. I’ll play one more game and then I’ll consider hopping in the car to see if there’s anyone out there who might need a ride. I’ve considered this before, though, and it’s always turned out the same. So if you need anything, you know where I’ll be.

I am sci-fi.