Forgettable Spider’s Web a Lackluster Return of the Girl with a Dragon Tattoo
It’s been three years since hacker and cybernetic vigilante Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) spoke with journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), his last story chronicling her selfless heroics while also dissecting her family’s sordid criminal history driving a wedge between them that has left their friendship on the edge of collapse. But she needs him now. Lisbeth agreed to help scientist Franz Balder (Stephen Merchant) steal his latest program, codename “Firefall,” back from the American government for whom he designed it for. But he feels it is too dangerous for them, let alone anyone, to possess, and wants to see it destroyed before it can be utilized.
Initially successful, Firefall is taken by mysterious assailants and Lisbeth’s hidden warehouse home is destroyed. She needs Mikael’s assistance to figure out who it was that attacked her, and she’s willing to put their disagreements aside so they can work together as they have done in the past. Thing is, they’re not the only ones trying to get their hands on Firefall. American operative Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who worked with Balder to create the program, has come to Sweden to reclaim it. Also interested, and equally determined to put Lisbeth behind bars, is Swedish homeland security chief Gabriella Crane (Synnøve Macody Lund), and she’s not altogether pleased about Needham’s presence on her country’s soil, either. But the most dangerous threat comes from a mysterious woman who everyone thought committed suicide years ago, a shadowy blonde dressed in red who controls a lethal band of assassins known as the Spiders. She is Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks), Lisbeth’s estranged sister, and her personal vendetta is to see her sibling fall from the public’s good graces and watch as all she holds near and dear is destroyed.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the fourth book involving Stieg Larsson’s iconic characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist and the first written by someone else after his death in 2004, in this case author David Lagercrantz. Instead of continuing on with the other two entries in Larsson’s original Millennium trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) after the moderate success of David Fincher’s 2011adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, producers decided to go with this lesser known title in order to continue the franchise. They also chose to sub Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe director Fede Alvarez in for Fincher and hired Foy and Gudnason to replace Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig in the roles they played in that 2011 film.
All of that should be fine. Alvarez is a risk-taking young director who brings energy and enthusiasm to his projects that at times can feel dangerous and uncomfortably unhinged, allowing for a dynamic spontaneity to occur that’s captivating. Foy is one of the most gifted actors working today, her work in television’s “The Crown” and in this past year’s double-whammy of Unsane and First Man speaking for itself, so her taking over the role from Oscar-nominee Mara isn’t the step down some might have initially assumed it was going to be. As for Gudnason, I can’t say that familiar with his work. Still, he was excellent as Björn Borg in Borg vs McEnroe, and as good as Craig was in Fincher’s film having a Swedish actor in this role for some reason just feels right.
And yet, while Foy is superb, putting a new spin on Salander that makes the character her own outside of Mara’s or Noomi Rapace’s (star of the original Swedish trilogy based on Larsson’s books) takes, the movie itself is a substandard thriller that rarely goes anywhere worth talking about. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jay Basu (Monsters: Dark Continent) and Steven Knight (Locke, Dirty Pretty Things), Alvarez’s movie is shockingly boring. Even though it presents a handful of intriguing new characters including Andreja Pejic as a potential love interest for Lisbeth, Stanfield’s covert operative Needham, Lund’s slippery bureaucrat Crane and, obviously, Hoeks’ wraithlike angel of death Camilla Salander, the story fails to do practically anything of interest with the lot of them. Even Blomkvist is wasted here, the journalist more of a bystander observing the action hoping not to get killed instead of a key piece of this thriller’s ignition system helping drive it to conclusion. It’s a waste talent, and I had a devilish time maintaining interest for most of the film’s 117-minute running time.
It’s kind of odd, really. Take away the technology and erase the high-powered weaponry Needham is particularly skilled at utilizing and what I found myself left with was a substandard, ploddingly plotted retrograde spy thriller that felt more like a 1988 made-for-TV adaptation of a Robert Ludlum novel than it did anything else. The fascinating character nuances that made all three of Larsson’s best-sellers so incredible has been perplexingly stripped away, which is inexcusable considering this story revolves around two polar opposite sisters who were both victims of their father’s monstrous appetites and took wildly divergent paths in order to make new lives for themselves. But none of that resonates or matters, and as hard as both Foy and Hoeks try to give their scenes together a semblance of emotional heft or meaning everything falls weirdly flat, building to a maudlin conclusion that had me rolling my eyes in frustration.
Alvarez is too good a director for things to be a total loss. He stages two noteworthy sequences. The first is a chase where Lisbeth is drugged, framed for murder and left to be discovered by the police only for her to creatively find a way out of her predicament utilizing the dead person’s medicine cabinet, a stolen police car and a cell phone to turn the tables on her assailants. The other is an ingenious escape from an airport holding facility, the resourceful hacker throwing things into total comical disarray as she helps someone she hopes to convince to assist her in regaining possession of Firefall from being deported by Crane. Both of these sequences are masterfully staged with Alvarez in complete control, each climaxing with a bit of subversive virtuosity I thoroughly enjoyed.
But it isn’t enough. While I appreciate that Alvarez and company didn’t waste a lot of time recapping what has happened to Lisbeth in the past, there is still such a lack of character development that connecting emotionally to what is happening is close to impossible. This is particularly true as it pertains to Blomkvist. There’s really no reason for him to be a part of any of this mystery other than he was a key cog in Larsson’s original trilogy and I guess all involved felt he needed to be part of this as well. Having never read Lagercrantz’s book I can only imagine he had more to do there than he inexplicably does here. But even if that were so this is one whodunit where the journalist’s investigative skills aren’t relevant or useful other than they’re really good at putting him in harm’s way, thus making Blomkvist excess baggage the film maybe could have done without.
I think Lisbeth Salander is a fascinating character. Even with Larsson’s death, I’m all for bringing more of her stories to the screen. But as good as Foy is in the role, if they end up being as flat and as undercooked as The Girl in the Spider’s Web I’m going to reassess that opinion sooner rather than later. While not so much a bad movie as it is an instantly forgettable one, new adventures featuring the girl with the dragon tattoo are supposedly still forthcoming. Here’s hoping they’re a heck of a lot more interesting than this one is.
– Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2 (out of 4)