Synopsis – Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.
My Take – By now anyone who is aware of pop culture clearly must have heard about the Millennium novels, a series of best-selling and award-winning Swedish crime stories, which began in 2005 with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo from the late author Stieg Larsson. Focusing on Lisbeth Salander, a secretive, vengeful and morally compromised anti-heroine, the series gained wider acclaim when the initial trilogy went on to receive live action adaptations in its native Sweden, led by Noomi Rapace and the late Michael Nyqvist.
Following on their success, American director David Fincher (Gone Girl) adapted the first novel in the series in 2011, with Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, for the English speaking audience, that too with excellent results. However due to its higher budget and dismissal performance, the initially planned sequels with director Fincher and the cast returning, were stalled indefinitely. So by the time, director Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breathe, Evil Dead) had been hired, the studio had decided to skip the next two installments and turned to the fourth book to restart the franchise, which is instead authored by David Lagercrantz, who was chosen to continue the books after Larsson’s death in 2004. With a comparatively smaller budget, this film acts both a sequel and a soft reboot, with Claire Foy (The Crown) recast as the title character.
So does it work? Not really. Despite the effective source material, the film is a muddy mess that doesn’t really succeed as an action thriller, or a franchise-starter but instead plays like a tired sequel. While director Fincher’s film may have been excessively grim and suffered from a bloated run time, it was also a bleakly beautiful creation, a singular blockbuster that marinated in all of author Larsson’s musings on Sweden’s history of misogyny and Nazism. While this film, intentionally or not, sands all that nuance away in the name of more thrills.
What’s worse is that it drastically deviates from the gut wrenching and disturbing investigative thrill ride of previous adaptations and takes a familiar route of the same old “go for the maximum return” angle, all in the hope of creating a female Bond like character by curbing Lisbeth Salander into a Scandi-Noir’s female hacker super-heroine. However, whatever the failings the whole lot of adaptions have had, they have always managed to bring out some great female performers, because the character on who they center is incredibly compelling. Taking over the reins from Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara, here, Claire Foy is excellent too, but considering how the film handles her, it severely disappointing.
Taking place some years after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the story follows Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy), who while living in isolation also works around as a taciturn computer hacker and a vigilante for abused women and children. One such assignment leads her Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a former NSA employee, who created a program called Firefall, which controls every nuclear weapon on the planet at the push of a button. Now hiding out in Sweden with his young, genius son August (Christopher Convery), Balder realizes the amount of damage it can cause, and wants Lisbeth to steal it from Edwin Needham (LaKeith Stanfield), a National Security Agency (NSA) security expert.
However, the possession of the program makes Lisbeth and Balder a target for several parties with a keen interest, especially a major crime syndicate called Spiders. And when she gets outwitted, her only hope is turn towards the only person who can help her, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), a journalist who has been at times her friend, collaborator, lover, confidante, and chronicler. What Lisbeth doesn’t realize at first is that she has a deeply personal connection to the head of Spiders in the form of Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), a link that threatens to expose her past trauma.
While the film bears the subtitle ‘A New Dragon Tattoo Story’, the action skips ahead considerably from the events of the first story, as the adaptation required only a passing familiarity with the players to comprehend. The sequel takes care of that by providing all the necessary backstory in flashbacks, along with an early scene in which Lisbeth exacts revenge on a bad man who never abused her but stands in for a host of others. In my opinion, director Fede Alvarez (who also co-wrote the script with Jay Basu and Steven Knight), was a right pick to take this series forward, mainly due to his stylist talent. Fede Alvarez, the film’s director and co-writer (the script is also credited to Jay Basu and Steven Knight), is a stylist of some talent. His 2013 reboot of The Evil Dead was impressively gross, and his 2016 follow-up, the massively successful, Don’t Breathe, was an equally nasty and creative bit of horror storytelling. While he doesn’t possess director Fincher’s meticulous sense of style, he presents washed-out visuals and starkly designed sets along with a nice feel for geography.
Here we got some chases sequences and a lot of action, explosions, and double-crossings, set against gloomy, bleak wintry landscapes, and everything you’d expect in a thriller. Which is pretty much the problem, in the sense were we as an audience really demanding a high-octane Lisbeth Salander action film? Beyond the drastic casting changes, the most noticeable change is an overall shift in tone. After the departure of director Fincher, this reboot feels less like a crime thriller and more like a Danial Craig led Bond or Bourne action flick. Both genres are gripping in their own right, but weren’t the Lisbeth Salander franchise meant to be a psychological thrillers?
Lisbeth, an avenging angel for wronged women, is clearly someone who is driven not just by a sense of justice but by trying to right something that can never be fixed. She’s an entrancing figure, someone who always takes it too far but is vindicated for doing so. This is a character that makes you question your own complicity in supporting her and the vigilantism she stands for. Instead, the film shuns the compelling mix of that all-too-grounded childhood trauma and otherworldly mystery to highlight some conventional badass antic that feels cooked up by someone trying to build a simulacrum of feminism. By adding more leather duds and punching instead of empathy, the film falls into camp, instead of the menacing appeal of its predecessors.
The film is never fully interested in the cycle of abuse and the effect it has on those trapped within it, with its barely visible gossamer strands, binds people and their anguish. As a result, the film feels more like a knockoff than a film with its own notions about assault, revenge, and the effects of generational violence and as a film produced by and marked to an industry and culture in the midst of upheaval over those very issues. There are also some moments of ridiculousness, like for example, how Lisbeth’s hacking skills are almost honed to a superhuman level or how characters manage to move at incredible speeds. And you do end up wishing for more character depth, as we only ever really care about the turmoil of the characters at face value.
There’s family drama, too, in the form of her twin sister, who dresses in blood-red crimson outfits and has some deep-seated sibling rivalry. The script also leans on multiple painful clichés, such as an autistic child whose brain holds a secret password and a clandestine society of assassins who mark themselves with spider web tattoos. There’s not much human emotion anywhere, with Mikael sidelined during much of the action and Lisbeth failing to connect with anyone else. By designing the film more like an action thriller, we are never fully invested enough in anyone to care about the outcome.
It’s too bad as Claire Foy clearly revels in the role and does a fantastic job here. While she may not have the understated menace of Noomi Rapace‘s portrayal, nor the laser-focused determination of Rooney Mara, but she succeeds with her own interpretation. She also handles the action set pieces well, but in her moments between, the film suddenly comes to life. It’s a hell of an accomplishment in a film unworthy of such a performance. Sylvia Hoeks also shows the same magnetic presence here as she did in Blade Runner 2049, and she is still quite effective as the antagonist.
However, Sverrir Gudnason is so non charismatic that you might forget who he is from scene to scene, while Lakeith Stanfield, also barely registers. Cameron Britton too is alright as the chubby hacker comedy relief. Stephen Merchant, who flexes his dramatic chops, is probably the highlight of the entire film, so is the young Christopher Convery. While Exciting European actors like Synnove Macody Lund, Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps are wasted. On the whole, ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web‘ is a murky, conventional thriller which despite a committed performance from Claire Foy fails to rise above its generic flair.
Directed – Fede Alvarez
Rated – R
Run Time – 117 minutes