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Film Reviews Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets stuck in the endless Lisbeth Salander remix hysteria

Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider's Web.

NADJA KLIER/Columbia Pictures

  • The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story
  • Directed by Fede Alvarez
  • Written by Fede Alvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight
  • Starring Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason and Lakeith Stanfield
  • Classification 14A; 117 minutes

rating

“I’ve seen this before,” sighs journalist Erika Berger near the start of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the latest and laziest adaptation of novelist Stieg Larsson’s blockbuster Millennium franchise.

The lament is easy to relate to, coming as it is from the third actress (Vicky Krieps) to portray Berger in just under a decade, thanks to a trilogy of Swedish films (where Lena Endre originated the role) plus an American remake (duties handled by Robin Wright) intended to kick-start an English-language franchise that never materialized.

Of course, it’s not Krieps’s – or Berger’s – fault that audiences are witnessing yet another Millennium movie. It is simply because producers know that the late Larsson struck gold when creating the series’s central hero, enigmatic hacker Lisbeth Salander, and are so certain that there’s more money to be mined from the character that it doesn’t matter how many times her story is recast or retrofitted. If there’s another Lisbeth Salander story out there, in whatever form, chances of a decent return on investment are high.

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Which is how we’ve become stuck with The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the lowest-rent iteration yet of Lisbeth and her never-merry band of Swedish friends and enemies. Actually, a bit of clarification before we continue: Distributor Sony would very much like us all to call this film by its full SEO-friendly title, The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story, which makes it not only the lowest-rent Lisbeth, but also the crassest.

Adapting not the work of Larsson, who died in 2004, but the first Salander novel authored by David Lagercrantz, Alvarez and co-writers Jay Basu and Steven Knight take everything that made the series interesting – elements like characterization, tension and a sharp eye for the socio-cultural realities of modern Europe – and toss them into the frigid cold of Stockholm, hoping that audiences put their brains into a similar deep freeze.

Here, Salander (Claire Foy, many miles and expertly styled hair follicles removed from her Queen Elizabeth II days on The Crown) is Stockholm’s very own Batman, a vigilante who operates at night, righting the wrongs that authorities cannot be bothered to investigate. In between copious shots of Salander riding her Batbike (sorry, Ducati) across Stockholm’s many icy bridges, Alvarez shoe-horns in a makes-no-sense-whatsoever plot involving Millennium magazine reporter Mikhail Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), a British computer scientist (Stephen Merchant), a cocky NSA honcho (Lakeith Stanfield) and a bunch of other archetypes who start off good and turn bad, or vice versa.

Oh, and there’s also unfinished business with Lisbeth’s evil twin sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks), whose appearance midway through the movie seems intended as an earth-shaking twist – were it not telegraphed from the film’s very first minute. (Just in case audiences might be confused as to Camilla’s villainous nature, she shows up wearing an all-blood-red ensemble.)

In addition to the ludicrous plot – which is unintentionally reminiscent of the classic Simpsons line in which Homer utters, “Oh, I’ve heard how this ends: It turns out the secret code was the same nursery rhyme he told his daughter!” – everything is a downgrade from what’s come before.

Director Fede Alvarez (of the tense Don’t Breathe, but also 2013′s did-that-actually-happen Evil Dead redo) falls short of Niels Arden Oplev, who helmed 2009′s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and cannot come close to achieving what David Fincher accomplished with his 2011 remake. Gudnason is a perfectly handsome actor, but his Mikael is a dull facsimile of what both Michael Nyqvist and Daniel Craig offered in their respective performances. Krieps has proven herself the best actor of the bunch thanks to her work in Phantom Thread, but Erika – a complex and powerful character in Larrson’s novels – is relegated to a cameo here.

And as for Lisbeth? Foy slips easily enough into the crusader’s androgynous aesthetic, and she can deliver a 1,000-yard stare that rivals the unnerving chilliness of predecessors Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara. But Alvarez and his co-writers don’t offer their hero much in the way of character development, or even basic character. In all previous Lisbeth adventures (or “Dragon Tattoo Stories,” as we should be calling them now), Lisbeth is both victim and avenger, a multilayered character who deftly exploits her own past trauma to carve out a better path for others. But she’s also never mistaken for perfect, and must constantly reconcile her courage with the fact that the world is an ugly place only sometimes worth saving. In The Spider’s Web, she’s more a one-dimensional force of nature slapped with labels (queer, punk, genius) that her storytellers are uninterested in exploring.

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Blame the fact that Alvarez is adapting the work of a literal Larsson imitator in Lagercrantz, or the fact that he chose to work in the cinematic shadow of directors who came before him. Or both. It isn’t hard to find all the many ways in which this film exhausts both itself and Lisbeth. It is time, already, to give this Girl a rest.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story (hey, we didn’t title it!) opens Nov. 9.

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