By: Hawk Ripjaw (Three Beers) –
Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is a gifted hacker and recluse living in Stockholm, Sweden. She is contacted by programmer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to steal a program called Firefall. Balder developed Firefall for the NSA, designing the program to allow the user to access the world’s nuclear codes. Deciding a little bit too late that maybe giving one country access to every nuclear armament in the world was a bad idea, Balder asks Salander to get it back. Salander easily hacks into the NSA and retrieves the program. However, agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) notices and hacks her back, pinpointing her location and setting off to retrieve Firefall. When Salander returns to her apartment later, she is attacked by masked men who forcibly take the laptop with Firefall and blow up the building.
Believing he’s been double crossed when Salander doesn’t meet up with him, Balder goes to the Swedish Secret service and gets put into a safe house, igniting a country-wide hunt for Salander. Surviving the attack on her life, Salander contacts her former lover, investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) to find out who attacked her. He follows the trail to an organization called The Spiders, led by Salander’s twin sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), thought to be dead. Camilla has grown into quite the Bond villain, elaborate suit and all, and is hungry for revenge after Salander escaped alone from their abusive household when they were children.
In his first two films, the Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe, Fede Alvarez established himself as a director with a very strong eye for stylish visuals. His third feature might be his most slickly-made yet. The camerawork is sharp and precise, framing and panning and cutting with a rewarding confidence. It’s hard to overstate just how good the cinematography (by DP Pedro Luque) looks.
Claire Foy is the third actress to portray Lisbeth Salander, following Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara. Each of them has given a slightly different interpretation of the character, and Foy breaks away the most with a Salander that is a bit older, a bit rougher, and less goth. Foy is great as always, and brings an understated weariness to Salander. Lakeith Stanfield is also reliably good, working his signature off-kilter restlessness into the slightly-wacky character of Needham. The only real weak link here is Gudnason, although this is mostly due to his character having very little to do besides “pore over evidence and have a sudden plot breakthrough.” But even with the good characters, the actors do a lot of the work to inject personality into people that boil down to little more than “go get the MacGuffin.”
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a both a soft reboot of a franchise that fell apart after David Fincher’s American remake, but also sort of a sequel to the original Swedish trilogy of films. That alone is confusing enough, but the character of Salander is changed enough that it’s not even clear whether this is a reimagining, or a misunderstanding of whom she is. There’s very little psychological substance to Salander’s writing. Claire Foy pulls an emotional performance from Salander that demonstrates her understanding of the character, but on the page Salander doesn’t evolve past “troubled and brooding.” Alvarez makes light use of visual motif to punctuate turning points in Salander’s story but the story, ironically, falls short. The plot here is so recklessly fast-paced that there’s no room for her to be anything besides another power fantasy action heroine, a female Hunt, Bourne, or Bond. There’s even a Bond-style opening credits sequence.
The fact that this is both a reboot and a sequel will also alienate some viewers, as the past relationship between Salander and Blomkvist is considered canon, but isn’t really dug into beyond a couple of passing references. Newcomers to the franchise will be left without much information on these two characters, because it’s treated like something the audience should already know. It’s best to not even think about the fact that Blomkvist seems to have de-aged by about 20 years.
It’s also a little thematically jumbled. There are plenty of references to chess, and even more to spiders. There’s a small spider that often punctuates the establishing shot as if it’s following the events of the movie, and there’s even a spider right there in the title. But none of it ever really means anything.
Part of what makes The Girl in the Spider’s Web kind of fun is also its greatest stumbling block as a thriller. It’s kind of silly. It’s oftentimes very silly. This movie has an abundance of hacking. You haven’t seen this much hacking since the late 90s. With almost 100% consistency, if something has a screen, someone ends up hacking into it. There’s also heavy use of Tasers too, and nearly every villain on the receiving end of the shock hilariously makes that gargling BLAGHAGLHAGLHAGLHA sound.
Salander also moonlights occasionally as a sort of vigilante hero. As shown in the trailers, she tracks down abusive men and avenges their battered wives, but this is shown once in that early scene and never again referenced until the finale. This could have been an interesting hook, as Salander has already shown herself to be a fiercely individual force for righteousness. Her fight to protect other abused women would have made sense, and would even play into the movie’s climax. Hell, the original teaser trailer even suggested that would be the main hook of the movie.
The story eventually stampedes into generic spy stuff, as the scope of the story blows up beyond Salander’s personal story into a bizarre climax where the world is suddenly at stake, and the finale is an action-packed showdown at the villain’s lair. Fun? Yes. Thematically satisfying? Not at all.
Fede Alvarez’s stellar eye for visuals and Roque Banos’ moody score are an intoxicating distraction from The Girl in the Spider’s Web’s fundamental shortcomings as a compelling Dragon Tattoo Story (as the hastily-added subtitle broadcasts). It’s consistently great to look at and was a very fun experience in the theater. But it lacks the pulpy, character-driven narratives and cold tone that the former films in the franchise had. Instead it trades them for a straightforward, easy-to-digest action thriller that requires little actual thought and is noticeably in-step with the tempo of a superhero film. That makes for a solidly entertaining experience on its own merits, but a poor entry in the Lisbeth Salander mythos. This “New Dragon Tattoo Story” would fare better if it wasn’t one.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018) Movie Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time someone is tracked via their phone
Do a Shot: for every shot of a spider
Take a Drink: every time someone hacks
Take a Drink: whenever someone gets Tased
Chug Your Beer: until the official title of The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story sounds less stupid