The last time we saw cyber-punk Lisbeth Salander on screen was seven years ago in David Fincher’s moody, snow-caked mystery The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The 2011 English-language adaptation of the first chapter of Stieg Larsson’s Nordic Noir-defining Millennium trilogy was a critical hit, proving a worthy remake of the 2009 original film starring Noomi Rapace, and securing an Oscar nomination for lead actress Rooney Mara. Sadly, a disappointing box-office haul torpedoed any Fincher-lead franchise plans, resulting in this year’s soft reboot helmed by Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe director Federico Álvarez. Bewilderingly bypassing the other two Larsson stories – The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest – Alvarez adapts the fourth novel, penned by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s death. Set three years after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, this theoretical sequel sees Salander move on from misogynistic murders and ditch her investigative ways in order to secure an outlandishly destructive piece of computer software, deal with a shadowy figure from her past, and save the world from nuclear Armageddon. (Yes, really.)
It’s depressingly clear early on in the runtime that The Girl In The Spider’s Web won’t deliver the original Swedish trilogy’s gut-punch, nor secrete the uneasy, claustrophobic tension that seeps through every frame of Fincher’s film. It tries its hardest to ape the brooding menace of the previous films but ends up as a mediocre riff on its predecessors. It’s also quickly apparent that Alvarez and his screenplay co-writers Jay Basu and Steven Knight have binged on the last two Bond films and calqued their script accordingly, steering the franchise away from psychological, horror-tinged thriller into espionage romp territory. The ludicrously far-fetched plot, which deals with binary goodies and baddies who can be identified by what symbolically on-the-nose colour they’re wearing, glaringly magpies from Skyfall on a beat-by-beat basis: familial trauma resurfacing; a baddie missing half his face; a third act set at home and culminating in the exact same fiery way… The much-coveted MacGuffin is even called Firefall, for Sam Mendes’ sake!
So desperate are the studio heads for commercial viability and wider audience appeal this time around that they have clearly pushed for more sanitised visuals and greenlit a screenplay that’s sacrificed everything that made the “woman who hurts men who hurt women” so unique, challenging and timely, especially in the #MeToo era. To her credit, the prolific Claire Foy handles the character well, even if her performance doesn’t exude the same visceral commitment that Rapace and Mara brought to their turns as Salander. She outshines her miscast co-star Sverrir Gudnason, who takes over the role of Mikael Blomkvist from Daniel Craig, but despite her best efforts, can’t sell some of the heavy-handed symbolism and the hammy beats that will strain your suspension of disbelief to breaking point. The script attempts to keep her as a gothy enigma whilst explaining away her mystique with some trauma-cheapening, Freud-For-Dummies implications. Granted, Lagercrantz’ mediocre novel faltered in this respect also, but Alvarez and his team don’t show any real flair or appreciation for what made the antiheroine or the Millennium series as a whole so enticing; they gloss things up instead of focusing on the seedy systemic corruption and patriarchal perversion inherent to the books’ narratives, and betray a complex character by turning her into a cheap caricature, reduced to a series of spelt-out fairytale tropes.
Lisbeth Salander was never meant to be a super-spy or a world-saver, and even less someone the audience needed to fully understand, and her return to the big screen deserved so much more. Considering this empty chapter in her adventures, we’re staring down the barrel of a third reboot somewhere down the line – the character is too good for Hollywood to retire, even if it means a cast regeneration with each new film. But make no mistake when it comes to 2018’s vintage: if Fincher’s atmospheric film was rightfully marketed as “The Feel Bad Film of Christmas”, Alvarez’ slick-looking but utterly generic sequel will only make you feel bad for a once-promising series now neutered.
The Girl In the Spider’s Web | Directed by Fede Alvarez (US, 2018), with Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Sverrir Gudnason. Starts November 22.
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