I’ll confess that I’ve never quite gotten the appeal of Lisbeth Salander. On paper, the titular character in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books — a queer club-going hacker who rides a motorcycle and kills rapists — sounds like a proper 21st-century James Bond. But in David Fincher’s dreary 2011 adaptation, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth came off unmistakably like the fabrication of a male author. Her psychology felt surfacy, her edginess imagined by a square, her entire chrysalis hinging on her rape. Dragon Tattoo is certainly a it’s-rape-all-the-way-down kind of story, but it was hard to imagine that character existing outside a history of trauma. (I have not read the books, but it is my understanding that tonally, this is a more or less faithful adaptation on the part of Fincher.)
With Fincher and Mara having abandoned the would-be film franchise, a new dawn rises for the Dragon Tattoo Cinematic Universe, albeit one lighter on the industrial music and heavier on the cheese. Fede Álvarez, director of the recent Evil Dead remake and 2016’s Don’t Breathe, is at the helm, a filmmaker with less brand recognition but perhaps prone to less portentous heavy-handedness than Fincher, for better or for worse. (His edgelord streak is about on par with the franchise.) Unfortunately, any nuance and cultural insight that remained from Fincher’s adaptation has been swept out in favor of Mission Impossible–lite action-movie high jinks. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, rebooting with a fresh cast and pointedly starting with David Lagercrantz’s first book in the series (he took over after Larsson’s death in 2004), is a naked attempt to refashion Lisbeth Salander into a kind of endlessly sequel-izable superhero, with mostly unsuccessful results.
Claire Foy picks up the lead role, playing an older, sturdier, but no more human version of Salander. Sverrir Gudnason takes over as Mikael Blomkvist, this time around borderline useless in the action except as an observer and would-be documenter of Lisbeth’s heroics. The plot this time concerns a program called Firefall that grants the user access to the world’s nuclear-missile armaments, considerably bigger stakes than the first novel and film’s old-money Swedish corruption and murder (and rape, don’t forget about the rape). They are more familiar stakes, too, the kind that are easy to tune out if only because we have heard this song so many times before. Lisbeth is recruited by the program’s creator (Stephen Merchant) to steal the program from the United States, and soon finds herself the target of both the NSA (in the form of a reformed hacker played by Lakeith Stanfield) and a broader, more shadowy organization that appears to have ties to the family she ran away from as a child.
Everything in Álvarez’s film is bigger, including Lisbeth’s apartment, which is the kind of cavernous warehouse space that only exists in movies. Everything here is the kind of thing you only see in movies; Spider’s Web feels divorced from the real world in a way that takes any of its potential for political, social, or sexual relevancy off the board. Its hacks are only the hackiest variety, all “hack completed” progress bars and yada-yada’d tracking devices that would be acceptable if they were means to more thrilling ends. Álvarez can construct an effective beat of action here and there, but he’s so apparently not a director of actors. Even a talent like Foy ends up feeling lost and without motivation, which feels especially glaring as the story bears down on its “she’ll have to face her past” plot device. The titular web eventually brings Lisbeth face-to-face with her estranged sister, Camilla, played by Blade Runner 2049’s fearsome Sylvia Hoeks, a potentially interesting foil trotted out far too late and dressed up in far too impractical Bond-villain attire to be taken seriously.
I don’t hold Larsson’s novels in enough esteem to mind a theoretical sanding down of them into B-movie popcorn fare, but this isn’t the way to do it. The film’s opening, featured in truncated form in the trailers, feels like a promo for a goth Scandinavian Cleopatra Jones, with Lisbeth as a literal social-justice warrior who ruins bad men’s lives in spectacular fashion. Unfortunately, that thread isn’t picked up again until the film’s final scenes, as if such a premise wouldn’t be enough to fuel an hour and a half of cathartic ass-kicking. And in the meantime, this supposedly idiosyncratic action hero gets the same job as all the rest of them: saving the same old world.