The real world is filled with men who hurt women, and we’re too often forced to look towards literature and film for catharsis. The revenge genre, and the women’s revenge sub-genre in particular, offer a world of justice where our own usually falls short. One of the more memorable anti-heroes in this regard is the character of Lisbeth Salander who was given birth in Stieg Larsson‘s Millennium trilogy of novels. All three books received solid adaptations in their Swedish homeland with Noomi Rapace in the lead role, while Rooney Mara excels as Lisbeth in David Fincher’s exquisite and under-loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011). A fourth novel in the series was written after Larsson’s untimely death, and rather than adapt The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest into English-language films the powers that be have jumped straight to book four, The Girl In the Spider’s Web.
Lisbeth (Claire Foy) has established herself with a reputation as the person to call when a man in a position of power has wronged you. Good news for those of you who grew tired of her being a defender of women, though, as her latest case involves a lab geek (Stephen Merchant) who hires her to steal the app he created that allows its user to control global satellites capable of triggering nuclear missile launches. She succeeds, but an American lab geek (Lakeith Stanfield) comes to Sweden to get it back. He’s not alone either, as both Swedish intelligence and the local mob are also hot on her trail. Worse, the sister (Sylvia Hoeks) she thought long dead, the sister who took up their father’s cruel ways, has also returned.
Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead, 2013) delivers a slickly competent film with The Girl In the Spider’s Web, and if that sounds like underwhelming praise, well, that’s intentional. It looks good more often than not, and Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque make good use of both fire and ice in bringing the tale to life. There are some rough CG/green screen beats that falter, but those feel more the fault of Columbia Pictures tightening the purse strings in response to Fincher’s costly outing. (His film cost twice as much as this one, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a single imperfect frame.) Well Alvarez acquits himself well, though, the movie is sunk on a weak script that feels wholly disconnected from the Lisbeth Salander we know and love.
A brief prelude shows Lisbeth and her sister as children, and as their father invites them to his bed Lisbeth takes young Camilla’s hand and runs. The latter chooses to stay behind while Lisbeth escapes, and back in the present we see Lisbeth doing what she does best — using intimidation, technology, and force to stop an abuser from hurting his wife again. And that’s it for Lisbeth’s war on men who hurt women as the bulk of the story instead focuses on this rejected Bourne/Bond plot involving a technological MacGuffin. She becomes a generic action hero devoid of what makes Lisbeth… Lisbeth, but the script — by Jay Basu, Steven Knight, and Alvarez — can’t even quite get that right.
Lisbeth’s tech-savvy hacking ability has always ranked high among her varied skill set, but it’s woefully inconsistent here. She’s aces at it when it comes to moments and sequences designed to entertain — an airport escape offers the film’s finest and most thrilling set-piece — but at other times she’s painfully disappointing. Not one, but twice, she’s surprised at her own hideouts. They’re places she’s made her own, but the bad guys easily succeed in sneaking up on her all the same. And cell phones? The dumbest of American kids know they can be traced, but not Lisbeth apparently. Another key element from Larsson’s stories is the relationship between Lisbeth and the much older journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), but while the age difference in the Swedish films and Fincher’s were within spitting distance of two decades here the two are a mere six years apart. Gudnason does good work here, but rather than be the usual mismatched pairing his role is minimized to that of damsel in distress.
Performances are fine throughout, and Foy succeeds in distancing herself from her star-making turn in The Crown (2016-2017). She’s let down by the hair & makeup department and never even comes close to the punked-up extremes the character has reached before, but Foy convinces as both a bad-ass and a psychological mess. Hoeks and Stanfield are equally solid, but when it comes to emotional power per frame none of them can touch Vicky Krieps as Mikael’s married lover Erika. She’s short-changed on screen-time here, but she delivers more longing and resignation in mere glances than most actors do with entire dialogue scenes.
The Girl In the Spider’s Web feels like an imitation from it’s poor man’s riff on Fincher’s opening credits to the minimal effort in Lisbeth’s appearance, and the film as a whole follows suit. The central plot is a forgettable adventure at best, and too little is done with the idea of Camilla as a woman who Lisbeth failed to save. There’s something interesting to the accusation, but unfortunately the film isn’t all that interested in pursuing it.