REVIEW – ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’

The best-selling novels that became an acclaimed Swedish film trilogy that became an Oscar-winning Hollywood remake returns. But, it’s 2018, so naturally, this means it’s time for a soft reboot. The latest adventure of the gothic anti-heroine with the dragon tattoo is given a fresh coat of paint, care of a new leading lady and director (because, hey, Rooney Mara and David Fincher are so easily replaceable, right?) and a screenplay based on the only book not penned by series creator, the late Stieg Larsson. What could possibly go wrong? Pretty. Much. Everything.

Despite grossing $232 million worldwide and earning five Academy Award nominations (including an “upset” victory for Best Film Editing), Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was seen as somewhat of a failure. Despite both Fincher and Mara expressing desires to return, the initial suggestions of a sequel faded away when the box office receipts were below expectations. Flash forward seven years, and it’s time to give this franchise another crack with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Aiming for a more accessible experience, much of what made the preceding four films so daringly unique is disappointingly gone. In its place is a muddled film that, despite an earnest performance from Claire Foy, leaves very little impression.

Beginning with a flashback prologue, we meet young Lisbeth Salander (Beau Gadsdon) and her sister, Camilla (Carlotta von Falkenhayn), as they play chess in their lavish manor in an undisclosed frozen Swedish location. When a servant announces their father wants to see the sisters in his bedroom (and there’s no subtlety as to what he wants), Lisbeth attempts a daring escape to flee the abuse it’s clear their father has been enacting. When Camilla refuses to join her sister, Lisbeth daringly leaps from a high window, somehow surviving the immense fall into the snow below and running for her life.

Now in present-day, Lisbeth (a terrific Foy) is an infamous and highly-skilled cyber hacker with a litany of warrants out for her arrest. Fueled by her abusive childhood, she uses her impressive set of skills to help women in desperate need of rescuing from oppressive men. Her path takes a strange turn when she’s contacted by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a terrified American software programmer who has developed a program capable of hacking and controlling the world’s entire arsenal of nuclear weapons. The program, code-named FireWall, is currently in the possession of the U.S. government’s National Security Agency, and Balder wants Lisbeth to steal it back so he can shut it down for good before it falls into the wrong hands.

When Lisbeth gains control of FireWall, she immediately draws the wrath of the NSA, led by former-hacker-now-agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), who immediately sets off to Stockholm to track her down. Also hot on Lisbeth’s heels are a deadly Russian criminal syndicate known as the Spiders, led by none other (and this is not a spoiler because it was in the bloody trailer) than her estranged (and deranged) sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), who is determined to use the technology for all sorts of evil. After the laptop containing the software is stolen from Lisbeth by Camilla’s goons, along with Balder’s young son, August (Christopher Convery), she reunites with her old friend Mikhael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) in a race against the clock to retrieve the program and prevent a cataclysmic terrorist attack.

If you’re thinking this plot sounds very much like something out of a James Bond film, you’re not wrong. There is an inescapable and baffling effort to turn this franchise into a high-octane action thriller that will play better with popcorn cinema audiences. It’s a frustrating change that feels like a disservice to the source material and the previous film adaptations which captured the essence of Larsson’s writing. If this is your first dalliance with Lisbeth Salander, you naturally won’t notice, but for anyone with some experience with this franchise, it feels an inauthentic and cheap ploy. Even the film’s opening credits sequence plays exactly like that of a Bond movie, with score music that sounds achingly similar to Sam Smith’s recent Bond theme, “The Writing’s on the Wall.” It’s a far cry from the twisted, dark delights found in Fincher’s dazzling opening sequence, which still stands as one of the best of all time.

Much like Mission: Impossible – Fallout earlier this year, the film suffers from the tired “some bad guys have some nukes” narrative trope that’s been done to death now. It’s a generic plot seen in far too many action blockbusters that feels entirely out of place in a franchise previously known for understated stakes. Try as they may, Lisbeth is not a secret agent. Nor is she a superhero. Saving the world is not her schtick, nor should it be. It’s rather nauseating to see her placed in this role for the purposes of banal entertainment. With this dull narrative comes an onslaught of plot holes and woefully stupid and farfetched character decisions, typified by a chase sequence set at Stockholm Arlanda airport, which only makes sense if Lisbeth has somehow suddenly magically developed clairvoyant skills.

Part of me suspects director Fede Alvarez really, really wants to direct a Bond movie someday and is using this film as his “For Your Consideration” reel. There’s a whole swag of car chases, explosions, gun battles, and a ridiculous fight sequence where Lisbeth battles a gang of tough guys, with both clad in face-covering gas masks. There’s just one slight problem with this scene – you can’t damn well tell who is who, robbing the entire chain of events of any tension or excitement. None of the action holds a candle to anything the Bond franchise has given us recently. And when compared to the boundless enthusiasm found in the Mission: Impossible series, this looks entirely flat. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to flip a franchise into a different genre, but you have to make those changes worthwhile, and you cannot say that here.

What we’re left with is a sanitised version of this once dark and gritty world. There’s darkness hinted at, particularly in Lisbeth’s interaction with her sister and their painful past, but Alvarez is far too concerned with exploring his next bombastic action sequence than diving deeper into the characters he’s been given to play with. It takes a talented actress like Foy to rise above the disappointing film she’s found herself in, and she somehow manages to elevate The Girl in the Spider’s Web. She makes the character her own, with a decidedly different take on that of Mara and original Swedish star Noomi Rapace. Capturing both Lisbeth’s crippling vulnerability and determined strength, Foy instils her performance with a complicated mix of emotions, often conveyed through her damaged wide-eyed expressions. While it’s frustrating to watch Lisbeth become an action hero, Foy still manages the physicality of the role with deft skill.

The rest of the cast are fairly superfluous to the film. This is Foy’s vehicle and she’s in complete control. Hoeks is wonderfully menacing as Lisbeth’s adversary and she’s gifted some of the film’s best dialogue, particularly in the conclusion. Stanfield is fine as the NSA agent whose allegiances are consistently tested, but he’s not given much to do besides tag along for the ride. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this film is its treatment of Mikael, who is relegated to the sidelines and may as well not even be here. His purpose here is nothing more than to clunkily provide narrative exposition to other characters (and the audience), which is baffling, given his importance and connection to Lisbeth in the previous films. And the less said about the treatment of Vicky Krieps, the better. It’s nothing more than an underwhelming cameo, which will have you scratching your heads if you saw her sublime lead performance in last year’s Phantom Thread. Wasted is an understatement.

One of the biggest sins a film can commit is being forgettable, and that’s sadly the case with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. You’ll get some mild entertainment, thanks to Foy’s dedicated performance and a few intriguing action moments, but the entire experience will likely vanish from your brain the moment you leave the cinema. It’s an uninspiring film that flies too far away from its origins and falls flat on its face in the process. Someone get David Fincher on the line.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield, Sverrir Gudnason, Vicky Krieps, Stephen Merchant
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenplay: Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez, Steven Knight
Producers: Eli Bush, Elizabeth Cantillon, Berna Levin, Amy Pascal, Scott Rudin, Soren Staermose, Ole Sondberg
Cinematography: Pedro Luque
Production Design: Eve Stewart
Music: Roque Banos
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Running Time: 117 minutes
Release Date: 8th November 2018 (Australia)