The Girl with the Spider’s Web, directed by Fede Álvarez, is a soft reboot as well as sequel of David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which was in turn preceded by a Scandinavian trlogy of films. The shift from the Larsson's books to David Lagercrantz’s carries with it a brand new cast… and so many differences in tone, scope and character that it would be quite surprising if someone who has not seen any of the promotional material managed to guess that the two films take place in the same narrative continuity.
Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is back, more eager than ever to unleash retribution on men who abuse women. Except, this woman calling herself Lisbeth is to Larsson’s character as Jason Bourne is to pre-Craig James Bond: similar skillset, completely different mindset. The Lisbeth of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is introduced as a masked vigilante who hunts down and breaks men who hate women, to echo the original title of Larsson’s first book. This is how tearful testimonies and media reports characterise her at the end of the second scene of the film, an extremely beautifully composed one that deserves to be remembered even in a film whose photography and camerawork are by far the best features.
But Lisbeth did not come out of a superhero movie, no. She came out of a spy one that would not be unseemly as an addition to the Bond canon. In fact, in terms of plot, characters and tone, The Girl in the Spider’s Web bears a much stronger resemblance to Sam Mendes’ Spectre than any one instalment of the Millennium series. When Lisbeth is commissioned by former NSA programmer Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to retrieve the nuke-controlling programme FireFall, they find themselves targeted by the NSA, the Swedish Security Service, and the Spiders, a criminal syndicate led by a figure from Lisbeth’s past. Balder designed the security codes of his ridiculously destructive McGuffin (so devastating that it would not seem out of place in the hands of a Marvel or Bond villain) in such a way as to make himself expendable and ensure his young son August (Christopher Convery) will be in the crosshairs of every single organization coveting it.
August is supposedly a savant, but aside from his skills at chess and his habit of breaking words into numbers, one would never be able to tell, because he displays no autistic behaviour whatsoever, although that does not prevent him from asking Lisbeth if she thinks he is a freak for an extra pinch of schmaltz. Indeed, August’s character could have been removed altogether with only minor tweaks to the story, which goes to show that his primary function is to be a surrogate son to Lisbeth, who finds herself Ripley’d into his mother figure.
Although neither this nor the symbolic (heterosexual) family the three form when she enlists journalist and former lover Mikael Blomkvist’s (Sverrir Gudnason) reduce her badass factor, they further contribute to the list of generic conventions, stock tropes and overblown sentimentality that plague the film, which is unable to sustain the dark tone it seems to attempt to establish. The plot and its twists are all familiar, and the ‘villain from the past with a creepy, sadistic, and vaguely meaningful gimmick used in an elaborate torture scene’ (which pushes the boundaries of its 12A certification) seems lifted from a Bond script of the Craig era, and specifically one that has already been cited. Yes, it’s Spectre. Then again, the opening credits roll on what must be one of the most Bond-esque sequences in recent years; and if in Deadpool 2 it was motivated by parody, here it only adds to the list of uncanny parallels with its gratuitousness, and actually foregrounds it.
Lisbeth as a mother figure would have been unthinkable in the original book and film trilogy, as well as in Fincher's adaptation. The ability of her latest incarnation to assume that role does not speak of a metamorphosis so much as of an evacuation. This Lisbeth is a nondescript action heroine who is fully defined by a trauma that she never managed to work through. It is not only her Goth look that has been toned down to near effacement, for which it is difficult to imagine a reason other than to make her more conventionally attractive, or at least make her seem more relatable; her unwavering if self-destructive strength of mind, her explosive unruliness, her uncontainable sexuality, her inner and social struggles have all but lost their most interesting nuances, leaving a husk behind that Foy does her best to salvage, although she has been set up for failure.
At first it may appear unfair to criticize the Girl in the Spider’s Web for diverging from other Millennium adaptations, but the film, in establishing a connection with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, piggybacks on its fame. This would still not be a problem if it managed to be as good as its predecessor(s) or anything other than the regurgitation of a formula the audience knows by heart by now. It is also unsettling how much looser the plot has become, with the main characters surviving way too many close calls thanks to a convenient coincidence, a last minute rescue, or just the unmotivated mercy of the enemy, or their ineptitude, to say nothing of NSA agent Edwin Needham (LaKeith Stanfield) finding crucial cues which are routinely missed by the police and Swedish Security Service that precede him on the scene.
Despite the failures of the bad guys, sadly common in the genre, Lisbeth’s indestructibility, another action staple, and one chase scene that involves riding a motorcycle off a dock and onto a frozen lake, a sizeable portion of the entertainment offered by the film stems from its combat scenes, which manage to strike a balance between realism and spectacle and effectively portray Lisbeth’s resourcefulness, doggedness, and even ferocity. Another source of visual pleasure is the skilful use of shadows to split or blend locations and characters, which resonates with the dualistic chess leitmotif; it is corny but enjoyable, more so than most of the other unoriginal elements of the film.
The Girl in the Spider's Web ultimately does very little to further the Millennium legacy, whether by replicating its style(s) or by crafting an innovative path for itself, the most enduring memory of which might be how it watered down a complex, compelling, unapologetically feminist heroine.