Hey, remember those sequels to David Fincher’s 2011 The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You know, the English-language versions of author Stieg Larsson’s best-selling “Millenium” trilogy, starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig? Probably not, because those films never happened. I could’ve sworn that I saw at least one of them, but I must have been thinking of the 2009 Swedish versions starring Noomi Rapace. Fincher himself remained convinced that his follow-up films would see the light of day as recently as 2014, if only because Sony had sunk so much money into securing the rights and developing the scripts. But those films never came to be, so here we are in 2018 with The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a flaccid reboot of the series rushed out in an effort to recontextualize punk-rock antihero Lisbeth Salander as a feminist James Bond for the #metoo era.
If that premise sounds exploitation, well, that’s because it is. Whereas Larsson’s original trilogy was rooted in a deeply disturbing personal experience from the author’s youth in which he witnessed a sexual assault and failed to intervene, Spider’s Web is the first adaptation of the novels penned by David Lagercrantz after Larsson’s death and feels like a generic attempt to capitalize on a dead man’s work. Now we have an awkward expression of the female id — conceived and executed by men — functioning like nothing more than a gender swapped Bond or Bourne. There’s clearly been a radical departure in both style and substance between the preceding films and this one, and whether that disparity resulted from Lagercrantz’s novel or from the work of writer/director Fede Alvarez along with co-writers Steven Knight and Jay Bosu, I can’t say. What I can say with certainty is that the rushed production timeline of Spider’s Web didn’t do the film any favors.
Even if Spider’s Web had been treated with more carful consideration, even had it been given a budget and production timeline on par with Fincher’s film, it still would not have captured the spirit that made the original novels or their Swedish adaptations such a global phenomenon. Alvarez would not have been on my short list of directors to step into Fincher’s shoes, as his style seems ill-suited to the subject. While I found Don’t Breathe to be competent, his Evil Dead remake was offensive to my purist’s sensibilities. Here, he indulges in the worst action thriller tropes from excessive shaky cam to a washed out blue-grey color palette, without the slightest hint of innovation or ingenuity anywhere to be found.
If there’s one thing I can say in favor of Spider’s Web, it’s that Claire Foy is pretty good as Salander. Alvarez, makes some other interesting casting choices, with Stephen Merchant and Lakeith Stanfield playing pivotal roles, even if they’re not given enough to do. But the narrative’s central issue can’t be overcome by casting, as shifting the narrative focus from the noir inclinations of the earlier films to a generic international espionage plot robs the story of its emotional impact. Furthermore, pitting Salander against her long-lost sister sets the central antagonistic relationship between two women, undermining the fundamental feminism of the source material. What should have been a film about a psychologically complex avenger striking down “men who hate women” — the translation of the first novel’s Swedish title — instead becomes a film made by men who seem to hate films about women.