'The Girl in the Spider’s Web': Film Review | Rome 2018

Many thrills, few reasons to care.

Claire Foy continues Stieg Larsson's 'Millennium' series as Lisbeth Salander, Swedish hacker and avenger of wronged women, in an action-thriller from director Fede Alvarez.

The adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the intrepid punk-goth hacker made famous in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, continue in The Girl in the Spider's Web. The filmmakers take a heroic, action-packed, high-tech approach that empties out some of the originality of this unique female heroine, while pointing the movie at a rather different kind of audience from the first trio of Swedish movies and David Fincher’s 2011 remake The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It is based on the book by David Lagercrantz that continues the series after Larsson's death.

There is a new backstory for Lisbeth that soft-pedals the original one of multiple rapes and abuse. Other disconcerting changes should test the loyalty of the series’ fans, while perhaps picking up younger audiences. She now sports much more advanced IT skills. She also has the new superpower of accessing any computer in the world in two clicks, not to mention driving motorbikes and Ferraris over ice and snow at Le Mans speed and surviving certain-death situations. If you flash on an angry, pierced, femme version of James Bond, you are into the spirit of the piece directed by Fede Alvarez and starring Claire Foy (First Man, The Crown) in the lead role.

Perfunctory in its psychological realism and flagrantly lacking any other kind, the screenplay by Alvarez, Jay Basu and Steven Knight is certainly not the most satisfying version of Lisbeth. But it is edgy and action-packed, and Alvarez’ direction keeps the tension high through a slew of ever-more-improbable threats to Lisbeth and her allies. In the end, her character is so invincible she feels unreal as a human personality. For one thing, she has lost the traumatic background of abuse that made her credible as an angry feminist revenger in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It’s also perplexing to discover she has a sister (Sylvia Hoeks) whom she left behind when she escaped from their father, a Russian crime lord.

In the film’s dazzling opening flashback, two little girls — Lisbeth and her sister Camilla — play chess together in an icy fortress. A servant announces their father wants them in his bedroom, and one look at his perverted face is enough to know what he wants them for. While Camilla hangs back, little Lisbeth throws herself out of a high window into a blizzard and, surviving the fall, runs for her life. She never goes back while Dad is alive.

This is her new traumatic childhood, which is supposed to have turned her into a vigilante famed for hurting men who hurt women, probably as close to a #MeToo hashtag as an action-thriller can come. Her reputation as a dangerous outlaw hacker gives her an underground cool, and in fact she has been living incognito among Stockholm’s swinging nightcrawlers while apparently wanted by the police for illegal hacking activities.

Her big wounded eyes belying a tough guy appearance, the athletic Foy does quite a respectable job following in the footsteps of Rooney Mara and, in the Swedish films, Noomi Rapace, though she doesn’t outpace them. Her casual bisexuality is entirely in keeping with her modern image: She has a number of female lovers but still has a tender spot for Mikael Blomkvist, the unfaithful journalist who wrote and published her story, causing her to disappear from his life. In a much-reduced and unexciting part, Sverrir Gudnason is hardly more than a shadow in the role that was Daniel Craig’s. Versatile Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (Phantom Thread) is more regrettably thrown away in a cameo as Mikael’s business partner and lover. All the actors speak English with mild Swedish accents, including Krieps and the British Foy, an affectation that keeps them in their parts.

An early demonstration of Lisbeth’s steely resolve, as well as her fighting skills, comes in the rescue of an abused wife from her big businessman husband, who has just beaten her bloody and is making excuses for himself. Lisbeth appears dressed as an avenging angel with black wings; she quickly trusses the husband up in a lasso and hangs him from the ceiling, a perfectly impossible operation from a realistic p.o.v. Meanwhile, she empties his bank account in favor of his wife and the two prostitutes he beat up. Her trademark weapon, an electric taser, makes its first of many appearances as she stings him where it hurts the most.

The story proper begins when she’s contacted by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a frightened American programmer who is in possession of software capable of hacking into the world’s nuclear arsenals. He has come to fear it’s not a good thing to leave unattended in the hands of the U.S. government. Admittedly, the stakes are high, and for once Lisbeth is stymied over a password. Though Balder doesn’t get far into the story, he has communicated all the passwords to his savant 6-year-old son August, played by the delightfully serious Christopher Convery. The boy’s presence in Sweden complicates things considerably for Lisbeth, Mikael, the Swedish head of national security and the film’s best new character, Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), a legendary hacker turned NSA security techie, whose prowess scores some points for the USA. Needham is challenged to keep out of it by his Swedish counterpart but ignores her and plows ahead on a collision course with Lisbeth and friends.

Fortunately, there’s not much gab in the conference room and the hacking — involving anything from building surveillance cameras to national weaponry — takes from two to three seconds of screen time to accomplish. One does get tired of everybody locating everybody else using the old trick of triangulation of phone calls.

Sweden’s wintry landscapes turn out to be the ideal background to buildings bursting into blazing fireballs and motorcycle chases on ice. Imaginative visuals keep coming when a colorful figure from Lisbeth’s past unexpectedly appears and, surprise but no surprise, turns out to be the Spider Master. This arch villain first gasses, then vacuum-packs Lisbeth in a black plastic bag, which must be a first in the world of screen punishment. However, their final confrontation takes place on emotional terrain that is exactly the film’s weak point.

Lisbeth’s fans will be happy to know she still has the dragon on her back, a bit the worse for wear after the ruthless Spiders turns her cool secret digs in an abandoned warehouse into burnt toast. Cement fortresses without windows are characteristic of Eve Stewart’s production design, which pushes high tech ideas into the future with conviction. Also notable is Pedro Luque’s icy cinematography, draining color from scenes like blood from faces.

Production companies: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, New Regency Pictures, Pascal Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions, Sony Pictures Entertainment, The Cantillon Company, Yellow Bird
Cast: Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield, Sverrir Gudnason, Vicky Krieps, Stephen Merchant
Director: Fede Alvarez
Screenwriters: Jay Basu, Fede Alvarez, Steven Knight based on the novel by David Lagercrantz and characters by Stieg Larsson
Producers: Eli Bush, Elizabeth Cantillon, Berna Levin, Amy Pascal, Scott Rudin, Soren Staermose, Ole Sondberg
Executive producers: Bob Dohrmann, Anni Faurbye Fernandez, David Fincher, Line Winther Skyum Funch, Johannes Jensen, Arnon Milchan
Director of photography: Pedro Luque
Production designer: Eve Stewart
Costume designer: Carlos Rosario
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Music: Roque Banos
Casting director: Carmen Cuba
Venue: Rome Film Festival (official section)

117 minutes