Quick, summarize the plot of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) in 20 words or less! Nope, me neither. Which is a shame since the film is one of the most gruesome and daring of director David Fincher’s career, with a layered and socially relevant lead character. However, it’s cumbersome plot and runtime may have scared off viewers, causing it to falter at the box office. Now, Sony is taking another crack at the famed Millennium series, as they’re determined to turn it into a franchise (this is the same studio that wants to turn Spider-Man’s rogues gallery into a spin-off franchise, so this isn’t surprising). As a result, The Girl in the Spider’s Web (2018) arrives with course correction written all over it. It’s leaner, with a 117 minute runtime compared to the 158 minute runtime of its predecessor. And it’s more action oriented. Sadly, even with these changes, the film comes with even less fanfare than the original.
After a quick opening that details very important details of our heroine’s past, including some pretty sleek opening credits, we’re introduced to a wealthy businessmen who is committing domestic abuse on his frightened wife. Enter Lisbeth “BATMAN” Salander. Played here by Claire Foy in place of Rooney Mara, Salander traps the bastard, steals the money out of his account and forwards it to his victims, and then proceeds to blackmail him in order to keep his silence. This is like Robin Hood for victims of domestic abuse, and fits in line with the themes of the original film. However, this is one of the few times I can recall this theme having a featured role in the story – as we’re soon thrust into a clinical, boring, by-the-numbers espionage plot. It’s clear that the producers sought to focus more on the action and thriller elements of the series rather than focusing on the themes of sexual abuse and violence. Which would be forgivable if the film actually had great action set pieces or thrilling plot developments, which it is short on both.
There is one scene, involving a surprise attack in Salander’s home, resulting in her place getting blown to smithereens that is mostly enjoyable. The way in which Salander survives the explosion is ludicrous, but how the aftermath is shot is immersive enough for you to wish the whole film would maintain that level of direction. We soon learn that the attack was orchestrated by the Spider Society, a Russian criminal syndicate who are trying to obtain a dangerous software known as FireFall. They want the program because it can control nuclear launch codes, and Salander has been instructed to steal the program by her friend, and the program’s creator, Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant). The problem is there isn’t much of a reason to care about this plot device. Films like these usually prevent their techno-babble from boring the audience by either explaining it with brevity (in James Bond films) or tying it personally to the main character (in Jason Bourne or Mission Impossible films).
There is an attempt to tie the major events to the story to Salander’s past, but it falls flat due to a lack of development. We learn that the figure controlling the Spider Society is a character very close to Lisbeth, bringing back painful memories and regret. But the character is so underdeveloped that it leads the climax of the story to land with a limp thud. This villain is as bland and uninteresting as it gets. Even after the character predictably lays down what is supposed to be a speech made to empathize with their character and call into question the effects that Lisbeth’s actions have had on her, we don’t feel anything because we barely know this character. We did not get a chance to see the relationship between her and Lisbeth, nor do we see the aftermath of Lisbeth’s supposed betrayal. These characters are all too flat for the film to ask this much emotional investment out of us.
The film was directed by Fede Àlvarez, who also directed the remake of Evil Dead (2013) and Don’t Breathe (2016). His history shows an eye for fascinating shots and engrossing atmosphere. There’s some of that here, but not nearly enough, as the film is smothered by the clichés of its genre, both in what we see in front of the camera as well as the screenplay. The color scheme looks like every other Jason Bourne knockoff we’ve seen for the past 15 years; the intent is to show how serious the world the characters live in is, but it just comes off as dull. The plot is basically Spy Film Mad Libs, and I don’t believe there is a single pair of characters that have any chemistry other than Salander and her motorcycle.
There is talent wasted all over the screen, but it starts with Lakeith Stanfield as NSA agent Ed Needham. After delivering funny and engaging performances in Sorry to Bother You (2018), Get Out (2017), and TV’s Atlanta, his character is doing little more than padding the plot. Mikael Blomkvist takes over for Daniel Craig as journalist Sverrir Gudnason, and it’s quite a downgrade. The script also gives him nothing to do, except waste our time with a subplot involving his duty to cover the actions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, while maintaining a friendship with Lisbeth. And you should have seen my reaction when I realized the resolution to this conflict would be a scene ripped, basically beat for beat, from Daredevil (2003) of all movies.
It seems like this will be another failed attempt to turn the Millennium book series into a franchise. Perhaps the material would work best as a TV series, where its complex themes would have room to breathe, evolve, and wouldn’t have the burden of appealing to too broad of an audience. But with as crowded as the current TV landscape is, that might not be a worthy solution either. As it stands, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a hollow film not at all worthy of its intriguing source material. But if there’s one silver lining for the death of this would-be movie franchise, let it be the end of the conveyor belt of Jason Bourne doppelgängers. Let’s aspire to more imaginative thrillers on the silver screen, and let’s leave the dull, monochromatic thrillers to Netflix.