Movie Review: The Girl in the Spider's Web

A new author has turned the unique character into a generic superhero

The Girl in the Spider's Web (Dívka v pavoučí síti)
Directed by Fede Álvarez
With Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, LaKeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Stephen Merchant

Cyberhacker Lisbeth Salander returns, more or less, in The Girl in the Spider's Web, a follow up to 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

David Fincher, who directed the 2011 film, served as one of the executive producers. Claire Foy, who recently played Neil Armstrong’s wife in First Man, takes over as Lisbeth Salander. It was perhaps a poor choice as she lacks the gritty edge the character requires. Simply put, she comes off as simply being too nice to be the sort of morally ambiguous vigilante with a dark past. She also seems clueless around computers, treating them like magic boxes.

For fans of the 2011 film, or the three Swedish films from 2009, the main characters will be almost unrecognizable.

The author of the Millennium trilogy of novels, Stieg Larsson, died in 2004. A new author, David Lagercrantz, has taken over the characters, and shifted the tone radically. Before writing this novel, his main credit was a sports biography.

The film starts with Salander as a costumed superhero, with a mask painted across her eyes and a tight leather outfit, looking something like Batgirl or Catwoman. She avenges some social injustice. The scene has nothing to do with the rest of the film. The same basic structure can be found in James Bond films, with a self-contained pre-title sequence before the opening credits.

The main plot itself plunges further into aping the James Bond series, with some convoluted nonsense about international spies, nuclear missiles and a secret evil organization. Taken for what it is, the plot is interesting and the execution isn’t bad, but it misses out on all the complexities that made the original books and especially the Swedish film trilogy unique.

Salander becomes virtually any other rogue spy trying to save the world while fighting both villains and the establishment.

The film has some tour-de-force chase scenes, including one on foot. But for it to work, Salander would have to have known in advance where random people would be standing exactly down to the second.

The name Millennium series refers to a fictitious magazine, with Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) as its key investigative writer who has a long history with Salander. He has a relatively small role this time, and the new actor makes very little impression, seeming not to be very curious or clever.

The villains, who sport spider tattoos that give the film its title, are also rather generic, though one of the film’s few surprises can be found in the identity of the gang’s leader.

Two of the minor supporting roles stand out. A hacker who helps Salander, named Plague (Cameron Britton), hits the right tone as someone who lives his life entirely online and knows everything about every major security system breach. Unlike Salander, he seems to know what he is doing when he is behind the keyboard.

The other standout is Lakeith Stanfield as the American NSA agent Edwin Needham, who is chasing after Salander while avoiding Swedish authorities. He also is convincing when talking about the cyber aspects of the plot and creates some suspense over whether he is a good guy or a bad guy.

Uruguayan director Fede Álvarez previously directed the 2013 reboot of Evil Dead and 2016 horror film Don’t Breathe. He does well with the darker elements of the story and the creepy settings. But he misses on the potential emotional complexities of the characters and the sociopolitical implications of the plot, with government tracking and surveillance of people taken for granted. The implications of hacking into global security systems is treated as a routine plot point, and never fully examined.

At the time of his death, Stieg Larsson was working on further installments of the Millennium series. Due to legal issues with his estate, that material will likely never be seen. That is a pity as the new author does not have a feel for the characters, and future films will likely continue in the superhero/spy fantasy mode. And we already have enough of those.

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