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Non-Review Review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is essentially a high concept shorn of any sense of authorship.

Lisbeth Salander is one of the very few breakout fictional characters of the twenty-first century, a concept that immediately latched on to the public imagination following the publication of Stieg Larsson’s Män som hatar kvinnor in 2005. Salander was a character who seemed to speak to the turbulent new century, a digitally native avenging angel who unleashed her wrath against a violent and misogynist establishment. Salander seemed to speak immediately and viscerally to her moment.

Phoning it in.

A Swedish language film was released four years later, featuring a career-defining performance from Noomi Rapace, which seemed to be enough to singlehandedly assure the young actor an English-language career. Hollywood quickly noticed and immediately commissioned a remake that would be directed by David Fincher, and which would go on to be nominated for five awards. Rooney Mara would effectively launch her career with a Best Actress nomination for her performance of Salander.

All of these are incredible accomplishments for a character and concept that in someways seemed clichéd and nineties. Män som hatar kvinnor was the kind of serial killer narrative that has been ubiquitous in the nineties, but largely supplanted by terrorist stories in the new millennium. As an archetype, Salander was very much of a piece with cyberpunk hackers with which Hollywood had clumsily flirted in movies like Hackers or The Matrix or Johnny Mnemonic.

Snow escape.

Salander was elevated by two things. The first was a prescient understanding of the appeal of a feminine avenging angel dismantling systems of misogynist oppression. If anything, Salander seemed ahead of her time, and should be perfectly pitched for the #metoo moment. However, the other important aspect of Salander was a strong sense of authorship and craft. Noomi Rapace embodied the character in the Swedish-language original, and David Fincher helped to elevate pulpy material to top-tier filmmaking in the American reimagining.

All of this makes The Girl in the Spider’s Web an interesting , if deeply unsatisfying case study of what happens when anything resembling a distinct creative voice is ripped away from Salander and she is stuck in a much more bland and conventional film. The results are deeply frustrating, but affirm the level of talent involved in the character’s earlier adventures on page and screen.

Everything burns.

It is weird to think about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in hindsight. Nothing about that movie should have worked in the way that it did. One of the best and most respected American directors handling a remake of a pulpy Swedish serial killer story, released as “the feel bad movie of Christmas” and earning not only a reasonable amount at the box office but also garnering considerable awards fare for a film in which a serial killer works to the tune of Orinocco Flow. The level of craft and care that went into The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is astounding.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web only makes it feel more unique and more surreal, underscoring what an oddity The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was. In many ways, The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels a lot more like the kind of film that you should expect from the basic concept of the character, an emotionally isolated superhacker who finds herself embroiled in a massive conspiracy that forces her to team up with an intrepid reporter. That sounds like the most generic thriller imaginable, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web largely delivers that.

Foyled again.

Larsson died before Män som hatar kvinnor was published, so Det som inte dödar oss was written by David Lagercrantz. Much like the literary version of James Bond survived the death of Ian Fleming, Salander outlived Larsson. In both cases, there is a sense that something was lost in the transition, that the essence of the character was subtly altered, some of the nuance erased in the handing from one author to another. Characters in these situations, so tightly tied to one author, can often seem fundamentally altered when written by another hand.

Similarly, The Girl in the Spider’s Web sheds almost all of the creative talent involved in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Director David Fincher is replaced by Fede Álvarez. Lead actor Rooney Mara is replaced by Claire Foy. Supporting actor Daniel Craig is replaced by Sverrir Gudnason. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are replaced by Roque Baños. Editors Kirk Baxter and Angus Wall are replaced by Tatiana S. Riegel. In each case, the transition marks a step down. In every case except for Claire Foy, it represents a sizeable step down.

Crashing out.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo felt like the Porsche of pulpy winter thriller movies, the finest model assembled with the greatest care from the best possible parts. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a bit more clumsily put together, looking a lot rougher around the edges. It cruises along, getting to where it needs to go with only the occasional hiccup along the way. However, it is less well constructed. It never purrs. It never roars. It just coasts, and occasionally splutters.

This difference in construction is not just a “big picture” concern. It is obvious even in a nuts-and-bolts sort of way. The screen is so dark that it is often difficult to tell what is going on in a scene. The editting is so haphazard that it is hard to follow the big action scenes. In one toilet brawl, it is difficult to tell who is fighting whom. Given that the fight is between Salander and an antagonistic horde, that is some accomplishment. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was among the best in its class, while The Girl in the Spider’s Web can barely hold itself together.

Everything is upside down.

This may seem unfair, repeatedly likening The Girl in the Spider’s Web to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but it is illustrative of a broader trend. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a movie that has been carefully designed and calibrated to look like almost any other thriller. There is nothing particular distinctive or striking about it. It seems to have been assembled according to a familiar blueprint, along the lines of any other mid-tier franchise vehicle with an eye on a two- to three-film run with a moderate budget and a healthy profit margin. (Still, the opening weekend put paid to that.)

This is quite apparent in the plot of the film. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not content to strip away any artistry in how the film is constructed, but also makes a point to smooth over any distinctive features of the narrative and character herself. What was most striking about Lisbeth Salander, and what makes her a character who seems most perfectly suited to this cultural moment, is the sense that she is an avatar of a long overdue #metoo reckoning. She is a victim of sexual violence who has decided that she will no longer stand by and allow it to perpetuate.

“The name’s Salander. Lisbeth Salander.”

The Girl in the Spider’s Web acknowledges this edge to Salander’s character in the most fleeting of manners. The character is introduced targetting a wealthy wife-beating entrepreneur who just evaded justice after attacking some prostitutes. There is some background exposition that suggests Salander has been aggressively targetting such men, but this is the only instance that the audience sees. After this point, The Girl in the Spider’s Web throws Salander into an archetypal James Bond plot.

To be fair, there is some fun to be had with throwing Salander into a James Bond plot. One of the most striking stylistic aspects of The Girl with the Dragon’s Tattoo was that David Fincher shot it like a James Bond movie that just so happened to feature Daniel Craig in a role equivalent to the Bond girl. This is most obvious in terms of form; the quick teaser cutting to a theme song and credits sequence that looks like a thematic music video, with Immigration Song as his answer to GoldenEye.

Sucking all of the life out of it.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web tries something similar, but refuses to commit. So there is a title sequence that plays a little like a modern James Bond credits sequence, a symbolic expression of the themes of the film. However, The Girl in the Spider’s Web cannot even commit to playing a kick-ass theme song to complete the effect, so the whole sequence seems incomplete and half-hearted. As with everything else in The Girl in the Spider’s Web, it desperately screams “just enough.”

However, while Fincher’s adaptation played with the form and conventions of the James Bond narrative, The Girl in the Spider’s Web shamelessly pilfers the familiar clichés and rhythms. Salander finds herself grudgingly working with an American operative, much like Bond inevitably had to tolerate characters like Felix Leiter. Salander is grappling with international arms dealers (in this case with connections to Russia) who trade in weapons of mass destruction. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is so boilerplate that the macguffin that drives the plot is effectively nuclear launch codes.

Blonde ambition.

However, it isn’t just the broad strokes that feel derivative and formulaic. The finer details also seem overly familiar and conventional. As in Skyfall, there is a character who can memorably remove his own face. As in Spectre, there is a villain who just happens to have a strong emotional connection to the hero’s childhood. As in most recent Bond films, the lead character is forced to go rogue without their conventional support network. There are even sports cars and gadgets, not to mention a villain who is defined by her distinctive physical appearance.

Expanding beyond the James Bond franchise, The Girl in the Spider’s Web hits upon every pulpy trope imaginable in its characterisation of the villain. Camilla is Lisbeth’s sister. Early in the film, the audience is told that Camilla is dead, but of course she isn’t. Camilla is the dark secret from Lisbeth’s past, the profound personal failure that defined Lisbeth. Indeed, The Girl in the Spider’s Web treats Camilla as a Freudian justification for Lisbeth; the girl that Lisbeth could not save, who perhaps motivated her to save all the women that she could.

Honest to goodness, one character demands, “WHO ARE YOU?” of Lisbeth.
Sadly, she does not respond, “I’m Batman.”

This is all completely ridiculous, and The Girl in the Spider’s Web leans heavily into all the expected beats. Camilla is a cartoon supervillain. Early on, Lisbeth and Camilla play chess together. Lisbeth is black and Camilla is white. Camilla later bleaches her hair and eyebrows to enforce that dichotomy. However, once Camilla has been scarred, she starts wearing red spandex and leather in order to provide a more striking visual contrast. (She even has her own signature weapons; a deadly needle on her ring.)

There is some effort to make Camilla more than just a collection of hackneyed “franchise film villain” clichés bundled together and gently reheated. Camilla theoretically connects The Girl in the Spider’s Web back to the theme of sexual violence and exploitation that defines Lisbeth. Camilla was abused by her father as a child, and abandoned to that abuse. Nobody came to help her. Her father was able to indulge his worst impulses, and she was powerless to stop him. In theory, this ties back to Lisbeth’s defining trait as an avenger of sexual trauma.

“We found a replacement on Craig’s list.”

However, all of this simply has the effect of creating a female villain who is defined entirely by the traumatic sexual abuse that she suffered, and to suggest that a character whose primary defining trait is punishing men who hurt women must ultimate defeat an abuse survivor. It is a fair catastrophic understanding of the core concept of Lisbeth Salander, which is only barely mitigated by the sense that Camilla was constructed because she fit a certain stock archetype rather than as a direct attack upon the whole idea of Lisbeth Salander as a character who fights misogyny.

All of this exists to water down anything unique or distinctive about Lisbeth Salander and the world that she inhabits, to remove anything like a strong authorial voice from the film and replace it with a paint-by-numbers formula. By the time that Lisbeth is riding her motorbike across an icy bay to evade law enforcement, it is very clear that it would only take the smallest of rewrites to rework The Girl in the Spider’s Web as a film about Ethan Hunt or James Bond.

You know, in case you don’t get that she’s an avenging angel.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels very much like a stock franchise film template. That template is applied to a character who once demonstrated the potential to be a defining character of the twenty-first century. It is a horrific illustration of how easily anything resembling identity can be stripped from a core idea, how effectively any defining characteristics can be wiped in order to fit the rhythms and conventions expected of these types of films.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a cautionary tale, just not in the way that it thinks.

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