It was only a matter of time until Sony brought anti-heroine Lisbeth Salander back to the big screen, only this time it wouldn’t be helmed by the legendary David Fincher and Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara wouldn’t return. Sadly, Sony took the monetarily cautious approach by removing Fincher, a director infamous for his incredibly long shooting schedules and larger than expected budgets—evidenced by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s $A125 million price tag.
Sony decided a full reboot was the necessary course of action, bringing on Fede Alvarez to direct with Claire Foy as Salander in an adaptation of the fourth novel in the series and the first of the rebooted series not to be written by Stieg Larsson, who passed away before his original trilogy hit the shelves. Compared to Fincher’s version, Alvarez’s film sands off a lot of Salander’s rougher edges and moves this series into more of an action-driven realm. Despite my frustration that Fincher—one of my all-time favourite directors—was denied the opportunity to finish his trilogy, I was hoping The Girl in the Spider’s Web would be another great film that could be added to Claire Foy’s résumé.
We follow Salander, who’s introduced as a fearless vigilante in an opening scene that echoes The Equalizer, in which she brutally punishes a wealthy wife-abuser. While this is a large element of Salander’s psychology as a character, this scene—which is unconnected to the rest of the story—is the only offering we get of her vigilantism. The plot truly kicks in when fired NSA agent Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) recruits Salander to steal and destroy his program, FireFall, which can control the world’s nuclear launch codes. This theft puts Salander in the eye of fellow NSA agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), the Swedish authorities and a sinister organisation known as the Spider Society. Salander tasks her old friend, journalist Mikael Blomkvist, (Sverrir Gudnason) to investigate the latter, all while protecting Balder’s son—the only one who can unlock FireFall.
As I’ve already touched on, this instalment largely abandons Lisbeth’s trauma-induced psychology; instead of this emotional element driving the plot, it’s a prologue to Salander being transformed into a simple, badass vigilante. And this is where the script falters: it is focused solely on the plot rather than its characters.Alvarez, and the other writers, Jay Basu and Steven Knight, don’t put in the effort to deliver any lasting substance, delivering set-ups and conclusions rather than developing layered characters and themes to deliver satisfying payoffs. While the plot isn’t overly complicated or convoluted—it’s mainly a case of protect the boy—it can’t elevate a script which is relatively hollow from a thematic and narrative perspective.
Alvarez gained recognition for his remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic The Evil Dead and 2016 sleeper hit Don’t Breathe. Stepping out out of the horror genre for the first time, he delivers a film which is fantastically directed at best and poorly directed at worst. Alverez differs from Fincher’s style of brilliantly composed static shots and steady cam. At its best we see Alvarez’s adept work with handheld photography, most notably in a scene where a drugged Salander stumbles out of a house with the camera rotating ninety degrees freely in either direction. It’s unfortunately obvious that Alvarez doesn’t have the knack for crafting a coherent action scene, with each action beat containing a disappointing abundance of close-ups, shaky-cam and rapid editing.
Where this film is bursting at its seams with talent is in its cast. Foy is decent as Salander but she’s not given much to work from a character level. Nevertheless, she shines in the film’s more dramatic moments alongside Blade Runner 2049 alum Sylvia Hoeks—who’s underused as Salander’s sister Camila. Lakeith Stanfield’s star is constantly rising after brilliant work in Get Out and FX series Atlanta, but while he’s a charismatic presence on screen, his character can only be described as “NSA agent”. When your characters can only be defined by their respective professions, you’ve got a problem on a writing level. This applies to Blomkvist, who feels like he’s in this story solely because he’s the co-lead character of this series, and Gudnason isn’t given a chance to develop any chemistry with Foy. Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps and Mindhunter scene-stealer Cameron Britton are wasted in small roles, with the near Oscar-nominated former only being in two mundane scenes.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is the result of Sony deciding to favour quantity (of profit) over quality. Not letting Fincher complete his trilogy may be a smart move from a monetary perspective—as this film’s budget is $A65 million less than Fincher’s instalment—but unfortunately, this film falls into the bracket of forgettable thriller. While Alvarez’s direction shines at points, nothing can lift a story surrounded by one-note characters played by actors who are all too good for this material. Turning Salander into a more standard action hero instead of someone whose main priority is to fight men who abuse their power was a move which makes the character less compelling. Foy tries her best to elevate this script, but she’s delivered stronger work in Unsane and First Man, which she’s a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actress nomination. While this will be an acceptable watch on a rainy afternoon, I think Lisbeth Salander and the source material in general deserves something stronger than what we received.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web hits selected Perth cinemas on November 8.