For the record, the “official” subtitle of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, this latest tale of militant hacker and all-around Swedish badass Lisbeth Salander, is “A New Dragon Tattoo Story.” It’s there in case you’ve only now just emerged from under a rock and don’t know that this is the continuing adventures of the lead character in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by the late author Stieg Larsson. Maybe I shouldn’t be so harsh, since The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based on the only one of the Salander stories (known collectively as the Millennium series) that wasn’t written by Larsson. Instead, it was written by David Lagercrantz and has remained off the big screen until now.
(For those keeping score, there have been two film versions of Dragon Tattoo, including the remake by David Fincher, and one version each of the two subsequent novels, The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest. All but Fincher’s version are Swedish productions in their native tongue.)
So, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (set in Sweden but with everyone speaking English) is the most standalone of the bunch, and that’s probably for the best. Directed by the talented filmmaker Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe and the remake of Evil Dead), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Basu and Steven Knight, the movie starts from scratch on nearly all fronts. Claire Foy is now on board as Salander (again, for you scorekeepers, she’s the fifth actress to play her, if you count the two young actresses who play her as a child, as well as Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara), and she’s certainly more than capable of inhabiting the icy, stoic, dark guardian angel persona.
The film opens with Lisbeth as a young girl playing chess with her sister Camilla, when their father calls them into his room, clearly with ill intention. Lisbeth not only escapes the situation but the home entirely, running away, never to return, leaving Camilla (who actually seems to choose staying with her father over leaving with her sister). At one point in the story, Lisbeth says that Camilla is as much a psychopath as her father, but one can’t help wonder if she started out that way or was driven to such mental extremities by years of abuse.
The strange thread that runs through Spider’s Web is the identity of the powerful person who is making life difficult for Lisbeth this time around; that person’s identity is kept secret, but there’s really little doubt that it’s her demented sister. But even supposing that it’s not meant to be a mystery, the film still lacks much genuine tension, even in its most action-driven moments. Early in the film, Lisbeth is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a programmer who designed a software program called Firefall that takes over the world’s nuclear arsenal from a single computer. The program can’t be copied; it must be moved from one server to another, so Lisbeth steals it from the NSA, right under the nose of special agent Edwin Needham (played strangely straightforwardly by Lakeith Stanfield), who immediately goes from the U.S. to Sweden in search of his missing program. Needham is neither a good guy nor a bad guy; he’s just someone trying to keep this highly volatile program out of the wrong hands, and he’ll kill whoever gets in his way to retrieve it.
But before Lisbeth can hand over the program to Balder, it is stolen by a crime syndicate known as The Spiders, and they eventually figure out that Balder is the only one who can decrypt the program to use it. Adding even more drama to the proceedings, Balder is accompanied by his on-the-spectrum young son August (Christopher Convery) who may hold the key to unlocking the program. Naturally, he is kidnapped by The Spiders. Lisbeth gets back in contact with her old friend, the journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), who hasn’t seen Lisbeth in three years and is feeling quite frustrated these days and, since his magazine was sold recently, he’s feeling quite irrelevant. But he is having an affair with his married co-worker (Vicky Krieps, from Phantom Thread, in a role that I’m guessing was much larger at some point because it feels almost disposable in its current form), so it’s not like he hasn’t been doing anything in that three years.
Every plot thread in Spider’s Web feels like it takes the long way around to get where it’s going. Even the program that Lisbeth steals feels superfluous because if she had just left it with the Americans, things would have been all right, since it turns out Needham was protecting it just fine. There are double and triple crosses, naturally, and when Camilla (played as an adult by Sylvia Hoeks) finally does appear, it’s about as anticlimactic as is possible. Decked out with all the proper ink, piercings and black clothes, Foy nevertheless does her best to make things interesting with a series of impressive scowls and dead-eyed looks that are legitimately spine-tingling.
Perhaps the way this film betrays the legacy of Lisbeth Salander and her creator is that other than an opening sequence (in which she punishes an abusive businessman for beating his wife and a pair of prostitutes (and getting away with it in court), nothing about this story truly adheres to the themes of Lisbeth as a protector of women and a punisher of men who hurt them. If the world ever needed Lisbeth to deliver exactly this type of justice, it’s now. Instead, Alvarez and company lean on the family dynamics and a sister whose reasons for wanting to punish her do-gooder sister seem dubious and confused at best.
Unconvincing motivations aside, the whole of The Girl in the Spider’s Web seems listless and uninspired. The action sequences seem like they’re done at half speed, and even a centerpiece moment when Lisbeth rides her motorcycle across a frozen lake that is cracking and crumbling under her doesn’t quite quicken the pulse. I kept waiting for the filmmakers to find a moment to deepen any of these characters, just enough to make me care whether the live or die or get the justice they all seem to crave.
Instead, what we get is Salander turned into a punk-rock James Bond, which sounds cool on paper, but the execution is deadly dull. I’m not sure if the studio was hoping to launch a franchise with this movie, but I’m fairly certain we’ve seen the last of Lisbeth Salander on the big screen for quite some time. That’s a shame, because she’s a remarkable, powerful superhero of a different, more serious shade, and the world seems ripe for this brand of character. It’s a closer call than I’m probably making it seem, but The Girl in the Spider’s Web never quite gets off the ground the way it needs to and should.
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