THE GIRL IN THE SPIDER’S WEB. Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant. Directed by Fede Alvarez. 115 minutes. Rated MA15+ (Strong themes and violence).
Sony’s 2011 adaptation of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ wasn’t the franchise starter that the studio wanted. Based on the first book in Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, the $90 million movie returned “only” $230 million at the global box office, despite director David Fincher and its outstanding cast receiving rave reviews and plenty of awards attention. This return wasn’t enough to greenlight a sequel, leaving the project in limbo for many years, until now. Rather than forge ahead with a knock-off trilogy (there was talk of replacing Fincher and his expensive stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara with cheaper options), Sony opted instead for a soft reboot of sorts, drafting new talent in front of and behind the camera, but also venturing outside the scope of the original trilogy. For after Larsson died in 2004, his estate recruited fellow Swede David Lagercrantz to continue the Millennium series, resulting in 2015’s ‘The Girl in the Spider's Web’ and 2017’s ‘The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye’. Despite the film’s best efforts to distance itself from both past iterations (Fincher’s bleak masterpiece and the 2009 Swedish trilogy), it can’t help but field negative comparisons to its vastly superior predecessors. Somehow, despite the involvement of exciting Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and a cast loaded with emerging talent, this take on the property is strangely flat and generic. Say what you like about the series’ lead character Lisbeth Salander, but any film that renders her prickly and complex character boring has done something very wrong.
The plot opens with Lisbeth (Claire Foy), a talented but damaged hacker, and her investigative reporter pal Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) no longer on speaking terms, after Blomkvist published a tell-all report into Lisbeth’s family, exposing her father’s criminal empire. Salander has been on the run for a few years, dipping her toes back into society every now and then as a vigilante, defending vulnerable women from the men that hurt and oppress them. She’s reintroduced in the final throes of one such foray, as she strings up a wealthy but abusive husband and empowers his battered wife to leave him, using her tech know-how to transfer a large chunk of his assets to his fleeing partner. In vengeance mode, Lisbeth compliments her regular black wardrobe with ghostly white face paint, ringing her eyes and streaking down her cheeks. The likeness to a superhero’s mask is unmistakable, but it is Lisbeth’s continued evolution into another all-purpose hero that most undermines this film and its version of the character.
Lisbeth is contacted by former NSA employee Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) and tasked with hacking into their servers to retrieve a powerful program that he developed for them. The program, dubbed Firefall, gives the user the ability to “breach and control most online defence systems”, including the world’s nuclear arsenals, and Balder no longer believes that the United States deserves to wield this power. Lisbeth hacks in and returns with Firefall as though she’s merely popped off the shops to buy milk. From this point it becomes clear that her hacking skills, in the hands of screenwriters Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez and Steven Knight, have morphed into a sort of absurd band aid solution to every problem that confronts Lisbeth. Need to stop a bad guy’s car? Two taps on her tablet and she’s hacked the car’s computer to remotely deploy their airbags. Need to command a new ride? Her tablet can now unlock any car. How about rerouting a cell phone signal to throw off a pursuer? Salander could manage it with both arms shackled behind her back. This is not to discount that such hacking exists in the real world, but it quickly becomes frustrating in this narrative. How can Lisbeth be a vulnerable and fallible protagonist when her skills apparently preclude her from falling into any real danger or facing any credible challenges? Her motorcycle skills have also been upgraded to a similarly farcical level, with one sequence seeing her land on then speed across a magical frozen lake. I say “magical” because the lake is apparently frozen enough to bear the weight of a decently-sized motorcycle plus its rider landing on it from a not inconsiderable height, but also not so frozen that it doesn’t threateningly crack beneath this load as it tears away from pursuers. Maybe this scene is intended to convey just how good a rider Lisbeth is now, but it smacks primarily of silly, lazy writing.
Before Lisbeth can return Firefall to Balder, her apartment is violently ransacked. The thieves, led by peroxide blond henchman Jan (Claes Bang), take the program and blow the joint up, leaving Lisbeth for dead. Knowing that whoever has stolen Firefall can’t use it unless they also have Balder, Lisbeth tracks down Balder and his gifted son August (Christopher Convery), hoping that she can follow their trail to heart of this conspiracy. With an NSA agent (LaKeith Stanfield) hot on her tail and a path that leads back to her childhood home, where her estranged sister (Sylvia Hoeks) has taken control over their late father’s shady underworld organisation, known as the Spiders.
Dull plotting and destructive characterisation aside, there is a bigger problem that corrodes the core of the film: Foy is fundamentally miscast. In her best-known role, playing a young Queen Elizabeth II in Netflix’s royal epic ‘The Crown’, she proved herself a powerful emotive force, able to convey the monarch’s raging emotional turmoil beneath her perfectly composed veneer. Her capacity to communicate feeling is so potent that it only took her an arched eyebrow or a twitch of her lip to scream her regal displeasure. However, this is pretty much diametrically opposed with Lisbeth Salander, a totally closed off individual unable or uncertain how to form relationships with others or express emotion. Foy struggles with tamping her awesome expressions of feeling, and her Salander feels wrong. Caught between a character that doesn’t emote and her own need to, it feels like Foy is crushed under the weight of the role, which is a tragic result for the talented actress.
From its gorgeous snowy landscapes to its bland score, ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ frequently reminded me of last year’s disastrous Scandi crime adaptation, ‘The Snowman’. Both movies took compelling literary protagonists and stripped them of their uniqueness and their allure. I should be upfront and say that ‘Spider’s Web’ is not quite as bad as that notorious and disjointed flop, but the fact that this comparison came to mind organically while watching it is worrying enough. If you’re one of the handful of people that might have enjoyed ‘The Snowman’, then this is the movie for you! If not, try to be like Lisbeth and steer clear of the Spiders.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out November 8.