The Girl in the Spider's Web (2018)
Directed by: Fede Alvarez
Written by: David Lagercrantz, Fede Alvarez, Jay Basu, Steven Knight
Starring: Claire Foy, Lakeith Stanfield, Sverrir Gudnason, Sylvia Hoeks
IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 118 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Stockholm, Sweden: vigilante hacker Lisbeth Salander is hired by computer programmer Frans Balder to retrieve Firefall, a programme capable of accessing the world’s nuclear codes that he developed for the National Security Agency, as Balder now believes it’s too dangerous to exist. Lisbeth successfully retrieves Firefall, attracting the attention of agent Edwin Needham, but is unable to unlock it, and it’s then stolen by mercenaries led by Jan Holtser. When she doesn’t attend their scheduled rendezvous, Balder believes Lisbeth decided to keep Firefall for herself and contacts Gabrielle Grane, the deputy director of the Swedish Secret Service, for help. Meanwhile, Needham arrives in Stockholm in disguise to find Lisbeth and Firefall.…
The Girl In The Spider’s Web is an often very stupid film. How stupid you ask? Okay then, how about a scene where somebody goes to a burned down house which the Swedish police have already been at and finds some blatant pieces of evidence lying right in the middle of the floor that the cops inexplicably missed? Or somebody who creates a virtually magical computer programme that can launch missiles all over the world putting the passwords into the possession of his 10-year old son? And then both Lisbeth and the bad guys both realising that said passwords are where they are despite not having any seen clues or evidence that points them in the right direction – they just guess? But then magic seems to be everywhere in this film, not least from Lisbeth Salander herself – or should I say what is a watered down version of her in terms of her character and a grossly exaggerated version of her in terms of her abilities. It’s not so much that they’ve turned her into an action hero, it’a more that they’ve turned her into a virtual superhero what with her ability to hack into absolutely everything [yes I know she was always good at this but this movie takes it to extremes], and with little attempt to tell us how she actually does it.
Of course if a film has no pretension to seriousness then one can forgive stuff like this, but this second attempt to reboot Steig Larsson’s fascinating heroine for the American market is mostly deadly serious – at least intentionally so. David Fincher’s version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo wasn’t actually a flop at the box office but it still didn’t make enough money to let us see the other two installments of the Millennium trilogy remade. It seems that it was thought that the main reason for it disappointing at the box office was that it was slow paced and needed much more action, because this new movie is far closer to a Bourne episode than it is to the slow burn and gradual mystery solving of Fincher’s film and the Swedish originals. I would imagine many fans of the earlier films finding this to be a typical case of Hollywood dumbing down, and others not being much interested in an episode not based on a Larsson book, though from what I gather the screenplay by Stephen Knight, Jay Basu and director Fede Alvarez, which is far and away the worst thing about this film, has removed whole chunks of plotting and partly replaced them with action. So, while this is indeed both a ‘soft reboot’ of the franchise and a sort of sequel to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, it’s perhaps better to treat it as something separate, something different. And indeed if you do that the film perhaps doesn’t seem quite so bad, with a few scattered qualities to enjoy despite the often terrible story telling and laughable moments, though it’s still hardly good and a major let down from the director of the Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe.
It opens in quite a disturbing fashion, a flashback to Lisbeth’s troubled childhood which seems to contradict what we found out in the two Swedish sequels – but never mind, this isn’t really a ‘proper’ sequel to them. Lisbeth and her sister Camilla have to deal with a sexually abusive father, and Lisbeth grabs Camilla so they can escape, but Camilla hesitates so Lisbeth leaves without her. You may think it’s unlikely that a child would survive the huge fall that Lisbeth takes, but you’d better get used to this sort of thing because plausibility is rarely thought to be important in this movie. Anyway, this leaves Camilla alone with her horrible dad. Fast forward to the present day and Lisbeth, obviously as a way of working out her guilt, now seems to be a kind of vigilante, taking revenge on guys who are violent to women. She’s introduced to us as she ties up a slick businessman with a penchant for beating prostitutes and transfers his bank account holdings to the wife he’s just smacked around, before applying a taser to his genitals. Then she’s hired to steal this incredibly dangerous computer programme that a James Bond villain would love to get his hands on, and we’re immediately taken away from the more realistic world of the earlier films. The programme is then taken from Lisbeth who’s shot at but then survives having her house blown up by jumping in the bath. Hmmm – well, let’s just move on. NSA security expert Edwin Needham arrives in Sweden to help, but is hindered by the Swedish Security Service. Then there’s also Lisbeth’s ex-boyfriend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, but those familiar with the earlier films may wonder why he now seems to be younger than Lisbeth rather than considerably older. Others may just wonder why he’s in the film at all, because he has virtually no effect on the story and just seems pointless, while the promising idea of him not being able to write about anything that isn’t about Lisbeth isn’t delved into in any interesting way. At least Plague, Lisbeth’s familiar computer expert friend who’s even more knowledgeable than she is, functions well as the sole humorous aspect of the film.
It soon turns out that the bad guys [well, most of them] are an extremely brutal crime syndicate known as the Spiders, led by Jan Holtser who, in one of several very convenient coincidences in this film, used to work for Lisbeth’s father who was actually a crime lord. Now I said that this is “most of them” because there’s also a ghost from the past that you will have expected to soon up anyway so it hardly counts as a spoiler. And then there’s a secret villain who just screams “secret villain” as soon as the character appears on screen, yet the supposed revelation near the end treats it like it’s a big secret. Considering how rubbish I usually am at guessing this sort of thing, I’d consider this to be yet another major flaw of the story. But it’s mostly Lisbeth, sometimes helped or hindered by others, versus the Spiders, and the resulting action sequences aren’t badly staged [is this the first time a tooth brush has been used as a weapon?] but sometimes suffer from Alvarez’s disappointing decision to employ ‘shakycam’ rather than actually letting us see what’s going on. And you just have to laugh when, for example, Lisbeth is given a tranquiliser but luckily finds a box labelled ‘amphetamines’ and, after crushing and snorting most of its contents, is able to drive a car in hot pursuit of some villains and catch up with them.
At least they haven’t made Lisbeth invincible in her fight scenes and sometimes have her do clever things such as electrocute a fence to avoid a physical confrontation, but, despite her still being bisexual, there’s no doubt that a decision has been made to tone down many of her defining aspects and mould her into a more conventional character, in the process removing much of what her made her so intriguing and indeed popular in the first place. It’s bizarre that, in an age where film after film seems to have a feminist agenda, it’s virtually missing from a movie featuring a character who became a something of a feminist icon. Half the time Claire Foy seems to look lost, which surely isn’t right, while her Swedish accent sounds rather forced. I really like Foy as an actress and think that her performance in this year’s Unsane as another thriller heroine was superb, but she doesn’t really get her teeth into her role here the way that Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara did before her, and often just seems to try to get by on withering stares. Of course one can’t totally blame her because she doesn’t have much to work with, but at times Blade Runner 2047‘s Sylvia Hoeks [it’s nice to see the female star of the excellent but mostly ignored Deception aka The Best Offer from 2014 getting decent roles in Hollywood] makes a greater impression as the other major female in the story, and despite having far less screen time is able to evoke some of the anger and pain that Lisbeth ought to have. The two share a final scene which is quietly powerful and very moving – but it’s too short in a film which often looks like it’s been cut to the bone very drastically.
Alvarez is certainly adept at keeping things moving and there are some nice long tracking shots in the film like when Needham goes into the main NSA office, though he’s opted for a very dull, slightly sickly look to the piece which is hardly pleasing. The music score by his usual composer Roque Banos is sometimes good at underlying the essential tragedy that lies at the heart of the tale, but elsewhere often opts for the boringly familiar “chugga chugga” musical patterns that’s underlined the exploits of Batman, Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt, and others – though of course one can forgive him for not seeming particularly inspired. Not feeling much like a ‘Girl’ adventure, too stupid to work as a serious action thriller but not entertaining enough to work as a good example of the “switch your brain off, let’s just have some dumb fun” kind, The Girl In The Spider’s Web isn’t exactly terrible, but it still just disappoints and fails to satisfy whichever way you look at it.