The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018) Review
A LACKLUSTER CONTINUATIION /
The world Steig Larsson’s literary crime series Millennium universe (originally dubbed the “The Millennium trilogy”) has fascinated million of readers around the world, with each installment becoming a “must read” bestseller. Thus, given the fascination and allure of this international crime novel series, it was almost a forgone conclusion that a movie adaptation of the novels would soon materialize, which they did in 2009 with the release of not one, or two, but three theatrical films. Released in Swedish, the films, which starred a Swedish cast including actor Michael Nvqvist and actress Noomi Rapace as main character Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander, received critical praise and told Larsson’s novels (those written at the time as the series continued on after in 2015) from beginning to end. Two years later (2011), Hollywood took an interest in Larsson as Sony Pictures released a US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (the first installment in the series). While the movie, which was directed by David Fincher and starred Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in the roles of Mikael and Lisbeth was well-received from critics and fans of Larsson’s novel, the movie itself did not perform well enough from what the studio expected it to be; grossing roughly $232 million at the box office against its $90 million production budget. It made its money back (and then some), but the film’s underwhelming performance at the box office put the follow-up sequel through development hell for years, with Sony Pictures mulling over the ideas of returning to the world of Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander for some time. Seven years have passed since Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was released and now Sony Pictures (i.e. Columbia Pictures) and director Fede Alvarez present the next American cinematic chapter of Larsson’s novel with the movie The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Does this latest installment (which does a double stance as a continuation and soft reboot) prove something worth seeing or is it a failed relaunch of the “The Girl” franchise?
Lisabeth Salander (Claire Foy) has created a reputation for herself as a brilliant master hacker and defender of the innocent, answering calls for help from those who cannot defend themselves. One particular case involves Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), an ex-employee of the NSA who’s created Firewall, a computer program that controls the world’s nuclear arsenals and giving the users remote access to launch at any moment. Wanting the program back from the US government and seeking safety with his autistic son August (Christopher Convery), Lisbeth sets out to steal Firewall from the NSA, while NSA security expert Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) witness the theft from their database and travels to Sweden to take the program back from Lisbeth’s cyber-hacking hands. Beating him to the punch, however, are members of The Spiders, a shadowy criminal organization with the intent of taking Firewall for their own purposes, putting Lisbeth on the defense as she seeks help from her old journalist friend Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). As Lisbeth works fast, she ultimately undercovers the mastermind behind The Spiders, which means to come face-to-face with her past.
THE GOOD THE / THE BAD
Working at a bookstore, I remember seeing the rise of popularity with international author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” trilogy; finding an American audience with his story of mystery, intrigue, and deceptively dark nuances. Thus, hearing a lot of “word of the mouth” of the books, I decided to read them, picking up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo first and (a few weeks later) picking up The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest novels. Personally, I liked the books and found them to be quite enjoyable. Of course, one of the reasons I decided to read the book was because of the news that a film adaptation was announced (the US version), with actor Daniel Craig and actress Rooney Mara being attached to the film. Naturally, I did hear about the original Swedish movies (three in total), but, while I did see them and love them (as they told the entire trilogy story), I actually prefer watching the US 2011 version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. For starters, the movie was directed by David Fincher and his directorial style was drenched all over the movie, which did help the plot’s dreary mystery aspect of being in an isolated environment and dubious people. Plus, I thought that both Craig and Mara were excellent in the story’s lead roles. All in all, despite the movie being long and a bit unsettling during some moments, I thought that Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was really good and was definitely hoping for a sequel (i.e. a cinematic iteration of Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire). Unfortunately, like what I said above, the film’s box office return for The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo wasn’t enough for Sony to move forward with the project, with the studio delaying a possibly future installment in the series for quite some time and without the involvement of neither Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, which was mostly due to their scheduling commitment to the project as well as a lower budget (if another movie was to be made).
Of course, this brings me back around to talking about The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the latest installment of Sony Picture’s film adaptation of Larsson’s novel franchise. With the constant delay of a sequel to 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for several years, Sony finally announced (on November 2015) that they were planning on developing a new entry in Larsson’s Millennium series by starting from the book titled “The Girl in the Spider’s Web”, the fourth installment in the series and done by David Lagercrantz. As mentioned, both Craig and Mara would not return to reprise their roles in the upcoming movie (replaced by a new cast), which made me lose slight interest in the project. Additionally, the movie’s story was gonna be based on the fourth entry in the novel series, intentionally skipping over the second and third installments (more on that below). However, after seeing the film’s movie trailers every now and again, got a little bit intrigued to see the movie. Since I did read the Larsson’s original trilogy, I was planning on reading Lagercrant’z novel, but (as thing usually go) I got busy and didn’t have time to read the novel. Thus, this review is mostly gonna focus on the movie version and not so much on the translation of “page to screen” (i.e. what was changed, added, or omitted). So, I went to see The Girl in the Spider’s Web with that “hoping for the best, but expecting the worst” type of mentality. What did I think of the movie? Well, to be honest, I was disappointed with the film. While the movie gets some elements right, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (as a whole) feels like a generic franchise reboot that just simply feels lackluster to the touch and in its overall appeal / execution. There’s a story there, but it’s bland one and hard delivers on surprises, especially when examining Fincher’s 2011 movie or even the original Swedish movie trilogy.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is directed by Fede Alvarez, whose previous directorial works includes several short films like Panic Attack and El Conjonudo as well as several full-length feature films including Evil Dead and the critically acclaimed Don’t Breathe. Alvarez approaches Spider’s Web with some intriguing ideas, most notable one that takes the novel’s story and make a bit more streamlined for American viewers. In a nutshell, Alvarez shapes the movie to be approachable to all, without many aspects and nuances needed from prior entries to watch Spider’s Web. The movie also makes for a perplexing stance of the narrative, but more on that below. Suffice to say, Alvarez effectively plays up more of action sequences with car chases, shoot-outs, and some closer-quarter combat, which does sort of “up the ante” for the feature. Alvarez also demonstrates in making the character of Lisbeth Salander more of a lead role (more son than Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo) and provides enough screen-time for her character to be the “main attraction”. Additionally, Alvarez makes the film somewhat lean, with the movie clocking in under two hours (a runtime of 117 minutes). This results in making Spider’s Web effective precise (for the most part) and never overstays its welcome, which (in hindsight) is a good thing.
On the filmmaking / presentation side, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is rather good and gets the job done within its sets and background nuances. Alvarez, along with cinematographer Pedro Luque, provide enough movie nuances in making the film’s background aesthetics similar to David Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, creating an effectively bleak environment (i.e. cold and dreary) of the landscape in and around the city of Stockholm and the Sweden countryside. Plus, the film’s costume, which are done by Ellen Mirojnick, are pretty good as well, especially the clothing for the character Camilla. Other areas worth noting, include production designs by Eve Stewart, set decorations by Yesim Zolan, and the music score by Roque Banos are effectively good in the movie, adding that extra quality of the film’s technical presentation.
Unfortunately, The Girl in the Spider’s Web faces multiple bumps along its cinematic journey, with many of them undercutting the feature in its entirety, which results in the film from being good and settles for more of a disappointing mediocre one. Perhaps one of the biggest (and the most perplexing one) is the simply fact that the movie “skips ahead” to the fourth entry of the series, especially since this is suppose to be a somewhat continuation to 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (under Sony Pictures brand name). Thus, this sort of jump skips over the narrative that’s found in The Girl Who Played and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest, which are the second and third installments in the Millennium series. While Alvarez makes this particular movie approachable for non-reader viewers to get involved in this latest chapter of Lisbeth, the film itself has a lingering problematic aspect that hangs throughout the entire movie (from onset to conclusion). What do I mean? Well, it’s because The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like you’ve missed out on something and doesn’t really take the time to tell you (the viewer) that. There’s a couple of hints here and there, but the overall execution of it all feels wonky. This is most prevalent in the character of Lisbeth’s father, who the movie never mentions that his name is Alexander Zalachenko (aka Zala). If the viewer knows of the character from either reading the books (of which he was of paramount importance in Played with Fire and Hornets’ Nest) and / or watching the Swedish films, then they’ll know how cruel and vile Zala is and how much of a monster he truly is. For everyone else, however, the movie vague mention how evil he was, but there seems to be something missing to the equivocation of trying to understand Lisbeth’s past, especially when discuss Zalachenko.
Again, it just feels like we’re missing a puzzle piece by skip ahead into the series and not examining the story in-between Dragon Tattoo and Spider’s Web. To be honest, the narrative story that takes place Played with Fire and Hornets’ Nest is more interesting than Spider’s Web. Thus, it all goes back to my original negative point as to why skipping out that particular story? It’s an indeed a perplexing one, with more probable reasoning behind it being Spider’s Web seems to have more of a standalone arc rather than a sort of two-part endeavor of Played with Fire and Hornets’ Nest (should if the movie tanked at the box office). Still, regardless of that, the decision seems to be a strange one and doesn’t help the overall appeal to the feature.
Looking past that the idea of “skipping” over two entries in the series, the rest of the film still feels lackluster. Part of the problem of this comes from the actually narrative being told, which sounds good on paper, but doesn’t translate well when presented on-screen. Let me rephrase that…. the story being told is quite interesting, but how the film’ screenplay, which was penned by Alvarez as well as Jay Basu and Steven Knight, handles it all feels disappointing and almost watered down to what it could’ve been. Judging from how the screenplay ultimately plays out, it seems like that Alvarez (and Basu and Knight) want Spider’s Web’s story to be more streamlined for American viewers, finding Lisbeth to be more something akin to James Bond or Jason Bourne with more action-based scenes and less time spent on character development. Thus, the film prioritizes its main ideas in the wrong category, making The Girl in the Spider’s Web unbalanced and rather boring as moves from one plot point to the next. Basically, the movie just lacks substance.
Unlike Fincher, who really did embrace the unsettling and disturbing nature of Dragon Tattoo’s narrative, Alvarez doesn’t dig deep enough into the material, skimming the surface on its plot and its various characters, including its main ones. Because of this, The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels hollow, “cold to the touch”, and playing out in a generic (and almost forgetful) cinematic endeavor. Lastly, another problem is that the film’s movie trailers (kind of sort of) showed a lot of the key sequences that happens in the movie, most notable the identity of the character known as Camilla (especially to the uninitiated to the Larsson’s novels). Thus, majority of the feature feels disappointing and rarely produces that just engrossing moments.
The cast in the Girl in the Spider’s Web is sort of a mixed bag, with selection of actors and actresses being somewhere in-between good to forgettable. Naturally, at the head of the pack (acting as the “big-ticketed” star of the feature) is actress Claire Foy, who replaced actress Rooney Mara in the role of Lisbeth Salander. Foy, known for her roles in Unsane, The Crown, and First Man, does a pretty good job as Lisbeth, providing enough of the character’s steely demeanor and hardened exterior in the performance, which does prove to be effective in the movie. Her overall interpretation of the character may not be as fully captivating as the other versions of Lisbeth Salander (to me, I still like Rooney Mara in the role), but Foy fully commits herself to the role, handling the more physical action-oriented scenes as well as the emotional drama pieces with theatrical talented skill. All in all, Foy’s Lisbeth Salander is the best performance in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.
Having said that, the rest of the cast are less interesting and are mostly unmemorable in their respective roles, which is a combination of their acting talents (not bad, just bland ones) and how the film’s screenplay portrays them. This is most apparent in the middle-aged journalist character of Mikael Blomkvist, who was played by actor Daniel Craig in Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo and is now played by actor Sverrir Gudnason (Borg vs McEnroe and Blowfly Park). While the character isn’t as important as he was in the Dragon Tattoo story, Blomkvist’ s appearance in Spider’s Web seems totally unnecessary, getting pushed back to the backburner of the screen-time and in the film’s narrative. It also doesn’t help the fact that Gudnason doesn’t have enough “pizzazz” to make the character likeable or even interesting to watch whenever he’s on-screen. Thus, despite him being a prominent character in Larsson’s Millennium series, Gudnason’s Blomkvist is a one-dimensional character that’s woefully underdeveloped in the feature.
The same can be said about the character of Camilla, the shadowy leader of The Spiders and who is played by actress Sylvia Hoeks (Blade Runner and Whatever Happens). Hoeks certainly does make for an eerie presence as Camilla (most notable in her voice accent for Camilla), but ultimately, she becomes a derivate antagonist baddie. Again, this is most done by Alvarez’s direction for the movie and how the screenplay presents the story (and her character). To her credit, Hoeks tries to make the most of her character, especially towards the third act of the film, but it’s a bit “too little, too late” at that point. Plus, the character persona surrounding Camilla is a bit underwhelming and the payoff for her doesn’t have a “shock and awe” appeal to it as Alvarez probably wanted it to be. Additionally, the characters of Frans Balder, a terminated NSA employee who created the program Firefall and who is played by actor Stephan Merchant (Extras and Logan), and Edwin Needham, NSA security expert who is played by actor Lakeith Stanfield (Selma and Get Out), are relatively bland in the movie, despite both being important to Spider’s Web story. Each one gives a overall okay-ish performance, but neither one makes for a full-fleshed out one from they themselves nor from the movie’s screenplay. Like I said, the film’s cast don’t exactly give bad performance, but majority of them are bland (again, a combination of them and how they are presented in the movie) with few leaving a lasting impression on the movie and its viewers.
Rounding out the cast (in more supporting roles) are actress Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread and Hanna) as Millennium publisher Erika Berger (who was played by actress Robin Wright), young actor Christopher Convery (The Blacklist: Redemption and Gotham) as Fran’s son August Balder, actor Cameron Britton (Mindhunters and Stitchers) as Lisbeth’s close accomplice Plague, actor Claes Bang (The Bridge and The Square) as Camilla’s lead henchmen Jan Holtser, actress Andreja Pejic (Faith and Reason) as Lisbeth lover partner Sofia, and actress Synnove Macody Lund (Headhunters and Haunted) as the deputy director of the Swedish Secret Service Gabriella Grane. These characters, while limited when on-screen, are the supporting players of the feature, with some given minor impressions on the movie. However, much like the main cast, the film doesn’t afford much time to fully invest in these character (even if they are minor ones). Thus, they just end up being blandly okay.
Lisbeth Salander returns to the silver screen for another installment of cyber-hacking, corruption, mystery, and dark memories in the movie The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Director Fede Alvarez latest film delves back into Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium” world, returning the focus on its primary character of Lisbeth, who undergoes a last case in and discovers that her past comes back to haunt her. Unfortunately, while the movie has certain elements that work (action and chase sequences and the like) as well as a strong performance from Claire Foy, the rest of the feature is made underwhelming by a bland story (that lacks substance), perplexing narrative stance, a somewhat mainstream / streamlined aesthetic, vanilla performances, and unmemorable characters. To me, I thought this movie was disappointing. While some parts were great (again, most notably Foy), majority of the feature was just simply lackluster and subpar to the other installments and iteration of the cinematic version of Larsson’s Millennium series. Plus, a lot of the film’s twists and turns were horribly bland, which didn’t help the movie’s likeability. Thus, it goes without saying that my recommendation for this movie is a definite “skip it”. Maybe the book is better than the movie, so I would recommend doing that instead of watching this (or just watch one of the other cinematic adaptation of Larsson’s work). Will the fifth installment (The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye) ever materialled, it’s really hard to say, especially since the movie is facing very mixed reviews from both critics and moviegoers. In the end, however, The Girl in the Spider’s Web winds up being a lackluster continuation / franchise reboot that fails to capture excitement within its narrative….and that’s a shame.
2.5 Out of 5 (Skip It)
Released On: November 9th, 2018
Reviewed On: November 21st, 2018
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is 117 minutes long and is rated R for violence, language, and some sexual content / nudity