If nothing else, The Girl In The Spider’s Web is further proof that it’s bad sign when a movie begins with characters playing chess. Spider’s Web is rife with kiss-of-death moments, including chess-as-serious-metaphor, government functionaries portentously reading dossiers, a bad guy described as “Stockholm’s most respected businessman” and enough languid shots of an actual spider that you can nudge your date and go “that’s the spider” until their ribs get sore.
Over in Sweden, Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (known in English as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest) got three film adaptations starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander, the motorcycle-riding goth computer hacker who avenges sex crimes. Here in the US, we got an English version of the first book (“the feel-bad movie of Christmas”), directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara. But Sony couldn’t get Fincher and the original cast back together for a sequel, and the franchise languished. Or it did until a year or two ago, when they wrote off Fincher and Mara for lost and decided to skip the next two books and start again with a film adaptation of The Girl In The Spider’s Web, based on the book by David Lagercrantz, who restarted the Salander series with the blessing of Larsson’s estate (Larsson died in 2004). Directed by Fede Alvarez, previously of the Evil Dead remake, this one is American, but set in Sweden, starring actors speaking English with Swedish accents.
Funny thing about this version, it stars Lisbeth Salander, the avenging angel of gender crime (the Swedish title of the first book translates to “Men Who Hate Women”), but it isn’t really about avenging gender crimes. There’s one scene, almost the entirety of which you can see in the trailer, where Lisbeth (played by The Crown‘s Claire Foy) hangs a wife-beater (who also apparently beats prostitutes and has sex with his boss’s wife) from the ceiling by his feet while she cattle prods his genitals and transfers all his money to his wife using her hacking skills.
An intriguing opening, but it turns out it’s merely prologue, a way to establish who Salander is at the outset of a story that’s actually not about gender crimes at all. Instead, the story turns on a computer program Salander has been contracted to retrieve — Firefall, which allows one computer user to control all the weapons systems in the world. Which is, one, way dumber than all the legitimate cyber terrorism scenarios out there, and two, basically the same MacGuffin as The Dark Knight and at least one of the Fast and Furious movies, isn’t it?
The whole movie becomes about this silly program and the people trying to get it — which includes a hacker named “War Child” and a gang known as “The Spiders.” So instead of a sex crimes avenger we get Lisbeth Salander as an off-brand Bourne. Ms.-sion Impossible, as I like to call it. The only plot point specific to Salander is the return of her sister (played by Sylvia Hoeks with dyed white eyebrows, for some reason), whose motivations are… tortured, at best.
A little silliness would’ve been fine, but for a movie that’s all about spiders and tattoos and black clothes and angular haircuts and non-heteronormative sex, it really isn’t even that goth. Didn’t Lisbeth Salander carve things into a bad guy’s body in Dragon Tattoo? Even in the first scene of Spider’s Web, the only one that’s actually about avenging, Salander just hangs a guy upside down and shocks him while stealing his money. Which is “badass,” I guess, but it isn’t very wicked. All we wanted was to live deliciously!
Likewise, it’s not that The Girl in The Spider’s Web is unbelievable, which it is, it’s that it’s mostly nonsensical, somehow both dopey and confusing. In one scene, Lisbeth gets caught in an ambush, and the room starts to fill with gas. She starts to cough, and then a wave of masked henchmen run in to grab her. She cattle prods the first guy in the groin and then steals his gas mask. The rest attack one at a time, and she prods four, five, six groins (or so we gather from the parts of the hacked up action we can actually make out). Finally, they overwhelm her, tearing off her gas mask. The screen cuts to black and in the next scene, Lisbeth is plunked down on the floor of the Spiders’ lair, where she wakes up, coughing. Which makes you wonder… if they just wanted to grab her and move her somewhere else, what the hell was the point of the gas?