Film Review: Despite a Game Cast, The Girl in the Spider’s Web Can’t Hack It

The Pitch: The late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, which began with The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo, is a literary phenomenon that’s so far yielded three cinematic adaptations of mixed success and quality. Whatever the failings of those films, this must be said: They’ve attracted some great female performers, because the character on who they center is incredibly compelling. Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara have both taken a turn as Lisbeth Salander, and now it’s Claire Foy’s turn. And because it’s Claire Foy’s turn, The Girl in the Spider’s Web cannot honestly be called a colossal waste of time. It’s merely a moderate waste.

Spider’s Web bears the subtitle “A New Dragon Tattoo Story,” so called because the novel on which it’s based was written after Larsson’s death by David Lagercrantz. But while the action skips ahead considerably from the events of the first story, the adaptation requires only a passing familiarity with the players to comprehend. Salander (Foy) is a defiantly queer, taciturn computer hacker and vigilante with a deeply troubled past, who acts as an avenging angel for abused women and children. Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), a journalist with a very busy love life, has been at times her friend, collaborator, lover, confidante, and chronicler. When the former is hired by a brilliant client (Stephen Merchant) to steal a program called Firefall (Firefall!) that controls every nuclear weapon on the planet at the push of a button — yes, that’s really what it does — things go badly, and when they do, she’s forced to turn to the latter for help. That’s not an easy ask for Lisbeth. We know this because we see her struggling to glue a back wound together without help, even though her hacker buddy (Cameron Britton) is right there. (The wound is on her tattoo, naturally.) But when things go wrong, for Lisbeth, they go very, very wrong.

The incredible wrongness, in this case, involves a nefarious group called the Spiders (get it?), a mysterious blonde (Sylvia Hoeks) from her past, a tourism-hating NSA agent (Lakeith Stanfield), and a human MacGuffin in the form of a small genius child (Christopher Convery). Shit blows up. Things are hacked. The tattoo, it is a dragon.

Queen of Making It Work: Let’s not put too fine a point on it. There are exactly three reasons to watch The Girl in the Spider’s Web. One: You’re a Millennium completist. Fine, watch the thing. Two: It’s six years in the future, and TNT is on, and they know drama, and you really don’t want to do laundry, and lo, this thing comes on. Fine, watch the thing. Three: Claire Foy is in it. The recent Emmy winner (for The Crown) does her level best to deepen, and then fill, this shallow, leaking basin of a story; her pauses are pregnant, her stares pointed, and her silences dynamic and varied. When left to her own devices, Foy lends the movie the tension that director Fede Alvarez (also one of the screenwriters) seems to assume will just arrive automatically. There’s more going on in one of Lisbeth’s silent walks than in nearly all the scenes that don’t include her, combined. She handles the action set pieces well, but in her moments between, the film suddenly comes to life. It’s a hell of an accomplishment in a film unworthy of such a performance. Lisbeth Salander spends nearly two hours of runtime either chasing or being chased, but she doesn’t get really get anywhere.

Unforgivable: On the other hand, Gudnason, Britton, Stanfield, and most vexingly, Vicky Krieps are given fuck-all to do besides (in order) look mournful, look nervous, look frustrated, and look beautiful. The film’s screenwriters are right to focus on Lisbeth, but wrong to hand actors of the calibre of these four a bunch of paint-by-numbers milquetoast bullshit.

If Alvarez had spent one-tenth of the time on character development that he spends on unnecessary drone shots, he’d have spent many hours on character development, and we might have something worth seeing. Alas, the drone shots are endless — nearly as endless as the stark gray interiors with gorgeous windows overlooking a gray landscape. We need lots of that. But a decent scene for Vicky Krieps? Nah, why bother.

It’s a Film About Geniuses, Don’t Overthink It: If Spider’s Web wants to reduce Lisbeth Salander to an action hero and little else, that’s it’s prerogative. It’s a baffling call, but let’s roll with it. One of the great pleasures of a smart action film is watching our protagonists and villains alike outwit, as well as outrun, each other. And in Lisbeth, the film has a character with off-the-charts intelligence. Why, then, is this thing so stupid?

That’s not to say that the characters, Lisbeth and her friends in particular, don’t sometimes do clever things. When something blows up in the film’s first act, Lisbeth makes a run for a conveniently full bathtub and survives the blaze beneath the water’s surface. An enemy crosses a bridge toward her, and the solution is a button-push away (no hacking required, thank god). When she needs to bust someone out of an airport lockup, she sets a fiendishly complex plan into motion, and watching it unfold is one of the film’s most genuine pleasures — though to call it implausible would be to do a disservice to Bigfoot and the moon-landing-was-faked theory. Yet the film is better summed up by a moment when Blomkvist, a professional journalist with many internet-ready devices at his disposal, smashes the glass of a framed copy of his own magazine to check the text of his own story for a fact. Does it make sense? No. Is it what a human being would do? Of course not. Is it kinda dramatic? It’s supposed to be.

“Abuse is bad.”: That’s about as much thought as The Girl In The Spider’s Web puts into the question of the cycle of abuse, survivor’s guilt, and a lifetime of trauma. It’s there as a substitute for anything resembling complexity in its villain; it’s there because it’s creepy and fucked-up. It’s not there because Lisbeth Salander is an avenging angel, because the movie has almost no interest in that aspect of the character. It’s all just window dressing, and that, in short, is fucked.

The Verdict: There’s a scene in The Girl in the Spider’s Web in which Lisbeth Salander is defeated by a child at chess. She doesn’t realize it at first — the child in question simply gets up and walks away from the board, probably off to stare moodily out a window. She asks him why he doesn’t want to finish the game, and he looks at her in surprise. “Oh,” he says. “Checkmate.” Startled, she looks down at the board. It is, indeed, checkmate. She knocks over her King, and the story moves on. The kid is smart. Lisbeth is surprised, but also not surprised, and probably lots of other things. She might need to stare out a window, too.

There’s a parallel in there somewhere, between The Girl in the Spider’s Web and that scene — the kid so aware of his own victory that he forgets to actually finish the game, the extraordinary woman bested and startled by a genius child, the limpness of a conclusion willingly foregone. It’s there, but it’s tempting to get up from the board and walk away from it, leaving the actual connection unexplored. That’s what the movie does, so it’s only fair. The Girl in the Spider’s Web does not give a single fuck about any of its characters, or any of their thoughts, feelings, actions, and reactions. It does not even care about making them behave in a way that’s recognizably human. It just wants your money, please. Y’all like those Dragon Tattoo books, right? Here you go, here’s your fuckin’ movie. All sales final.

Where’s It Playing?: International wide release, starting November 9th.

Trailer:

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