The Girl in the Spider’s Web

2018-11-09 11:38
Claire Foy in a scene from The Girl in the Spider'


Based on the first Lisbeth Salander novel not written by Stieg Larsson, the Girl in the Spider's Web finds Lisbeth once again teaming up with journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, as she navigates her way through Swedish officials, Russian mobsters, American NSA agents and old family ties in an attempt to steal back a potentially devastating nuclear program called Firefall from the NSA for the program’s inventor, who, racked with guilt over the destructive power of his creation, wants to destroy it once and for all.


After David Fincher’s English-language remake of the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo failed to ignite enough interest to bring the rest of Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium Trilogy to Hollywood – and it’s still not entirely clear why this happened as it did solidly both critically and commercially – the latest attempt to make a big Hollywood property out of a decidedly Swedish work is interesting in intention if not in actual fact.

Opting not to pick up where Fincher left off and wisely deciding against yet another remake of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the studio enlisted professional franchise reviver Fede Alvarez (the Evil Dead remake, the upcoming Labyrinth remake, an episode of From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series) to try his hand at adapting David Lagercrantz’s follow-up to the late Stieg Larsson’s literary sensation. If the novel is anything like this film, it’s not hard to see why.

Going, once again, purely by the films (both Swedish and American) as I have never had any interest in reading the actual novels, the original Lisbeth Salander stories were slow-burning, character-driven thrillers that felt much more at home on the big screen as mid-budget, scrappy Swedish-language films than as a major Hollywood Blockbuster. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, on the other hand, seems like a perfect fit.

Playing for all the world like a miserabilist James Bond film starring Batman’s younger, emo sister, the Girl in the Spider’s Web switches genres completely from the Millennium Trilogy; trading that series’ gritty realism (well, relatively: it also got increasingly silly as it went on), simmering tension and moral greyness with big action set pieces, simplistic characterisation and a plot full of big twists, requiring massive suspensions of disbelief. This would, of course, all be fine – see my review of Mission Impossible: Fallout to see just how much I can enjoy big, stupid spy flicks – but it’s far too grey, dour and humourless to be any fun whatsoever. 

The biggest problem, though – more even than the over-familiarity of its plot, its dreary pacing and its tonal confusion – is what it does to Lisbeth Salander. I always felt that the Millennium Trilogy was too haphazardly paced and too drawn out for its own good so I have never fully connected to any of the films but if there’s one thing that I did love about all four of the previous films; the one thing that justified their entire existence was the character of Lisbeth Salander. Here was an empowered female anti-hero that wasn’t just strong and basically good but was massively flawed, more than a little broken and not always at all likeable. She was also brought to life brilliantly; first by Noomi Rapace’s intense portrayal and then by Rooney Mara’s punkier take. 

Alvarez and his co-writers, Steven Knight and Jay Basu certainly do nothing to make Lisbeth more likeable, even if she is even more clearly on the side of the angels here, but there’s little of the sense of the complexity and inner turmoil that made Lisbeth such an engaging character throughout all the past films.

Indeed, the film fails utterly to give us any sense of her inner workings and we only ever get any sense of who she is and what she’s going through when the focus shifts to the more explicit, extroverted conflict that she has with... the film’s ultimate villain, shall we say, in order to avoid spoilers – not that it will take anyone long at all to figure out who that is. 

No more is Lisbeth Salander the complex and compelling character that transfixed audiences in her past incarnations. The Lisbeth Salander in the Girl in the Spider’s Web is now basically just a not very interesting superhero with enough tech-related tricks up her sleeve to make Tony Stark jealous but with none of the aspirational qualities that make actual superheroes some of modern civilisation’s greatest mythological figures. 

The film even starts with her dressed up as, basically, a costumed vigilante, hellbent on making evil men pay for what they do to women by stepping out of the shadows, with her face obscured by a mask of white paint, to take down a demonstrably horrible man who had just beaten the crap out of his clearly long-suffering wife.

And yet, even with Lisbeth delivering her own brand of elaborate justice, going up against her own arch nemesis and getting what can only be called a “Secret Origin”, the film doesn’t even really commit to this particular device; falling back on boring old spy-genre cliches instead and trying wholly unsuccessfuly to recapture some of what the original trilogy had to offer by shoehorning in her old partner in crime, Mikael Blomkvist – now played by a noticeably younger actor (Sverrir Gudnason), who doesn’t have an awful lot to do and is just about the blandest character in a film full of bland characters.

The final nail in the coffin of this woefully misjudged reboot/sequel/reimagining, though, is Claire Foy, who is just... bad here. She has none of the spunk of Rooney Mara or the sheer, blazing intensity of Rooney Mara and she mostly just looks utterly bored, if not outright lost, as Lisbeth Salander. She has already proven herself to be an excellent actress – even as recently as her sterling work in First Man – but whether this is a case of an inability to elevate bad material, disengagement with the character or a simple case of miscasting, she is, by several leagues, the worst on-screen Lisbeth Salander, to date.      

And if that doesn’t give you a good idea of just how much this film doesn’t work, I don’t know what would.

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