Lisbeth Salander hit a nerve in the middle-aughts. The creation of Stieg Larsson, Salander was as iconic in dress as in ideals. Garbed all in black, a tangle of leather, colorless tattoos, dark makeup, and various body mods, Salander provoked a new-age goth resurgence. She was an outsider but she also was cool in a “no fucks given” kind of way. But it was what lay beneath the facade of Salander’s dark exterior that made her a fascinating character and one worthy of frequent revisitation. Though a self-imposed social outcast, Salander found a place in society doling out vigilante justice – she hurt the men who hurt women. Her first appearance in Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” – twice adapted to film form – brimmed with righteous rage, establishing an antihero who was not to be messed with, who would administer lasting punishment, scarring the bodies of her victims with their sins. She was, in a word, hardcore. And she was cool.
With The Girl in the Spider’s Web, everyone’s favorite Swedish punk rock hacker is back but she’s but a pastiche of her former self. After the scattershot Scandinavian trilogy starring Noomi Rapace and David Fincher’s bleak and delirious 2011 adaptation, Lisbeth was an established anti-establishment antihero. Rooney Mara’s turn as the character even earned her an Academy Awards nomination and Rapace’s made her an unconventional star. Though new-to-the-series Claire Foy shows potential in the role, there’s almost nothing on the page for her to respond to, The Girl in the Spider’s Web using Lisbeth as a edgy veneer to dress up a predictable and plodding techno-thriller without actually diving into the deeper mechanics of the character.
There quite simply isn’t much of a performance to analysis here as Foy spends the duration of the screen time dashing about, trying to recover a doomsday device that brings her face-to-face with her mysterious past, which would have been better left alone. Foy is fine as Lisbeth, hinting at the moral complexity of the character and sinking into her wiry but combative frame, but the film spends little time giving her texture, failing to add to her mystique in any discernible manner. This isn’t the story of a misanthropic vigilante righting the wrongs of the patriarchy, it’s just a blasé action movie – one that overtly sexualizes its scantily-clad female characters – using Lisbeth as a pawn to sell tickets.
Essentially, the fourth screen appearance of Lisbeth Salander takes a character who was ahead of her time and walks her back, bland-washing a feminist icon into a pastiche of moodiness, afraid of giving her any real venom, unwilling to commit to the full avenging angel darkness of the character. By tangling Lisbeth in a web of techno-babble and personal history, The Girl in the Spider’s Web misplaces Lisbeth’s defining characteristics and nearly kills her mystique in the process.
In the film from Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe), the hacker extraordinaire is hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) to steal back a program named Firefall he developed for the Americans that would relinquish control of all the world’s nuclear arsenal to a single user. Why anyone in their right mind would be willing to develop such a blatantly evil Macguffin is besides the point, just another instance of convoluted, surface-level writing in a movie fill of such. After some quick research into Balder, Lisbeth determines that he ain’t so bad and so acquiesces. Having secured Firefall, a shadowy organization, known as the Spiders, busts up her industrial apartment, steals the program, tries to blow her up, and makes off to rule the world.
The remainder of the film is spent trying to recover the device, with backup in the form of journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, in a thankless role), hacker Plague (Cameron Britton), and American operative Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield, always welcome on the screen) arriving to aid in stopping the Spider’s devious plot. None of them move the dial. There’s also very obvious allusions to the fact that Lisbeth’s sketchy family is somehow involved in all this, despite them being “dead” and so begins an equally obvious mystery-thriller that’s bogged down in bland action and blander storytelling.
Alvarez evidently turned enough heads making avant-garde horror that he landed the gig reviving Lisbeth Salander but gone is his insidious touch and penchant for the macabre, replaced by a rough desire to break out of his box. In this instance by staging rough set pieces. The action sequences – and there are many – are a collage of quick cuts, lacking fluidity, and largely unimpressive. Foy gets lost in the jumble, the psychically of her performance obscured by obvious stunt-doublery. Had Alvarez leaned into his pedigree and made The Girl in the Spider’s Web into a feminist horror movie rather than a convoulted thriller – as I had hoped he would – this really could have been something. That couldn’t be further from what we get though.
The film’s veneer of cool is lost when Lisbeth transforms from pissy Lady Vengeance to Savior of the World. She’s more Avenger than antihero and all the weaker for it. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a rote thriller; predictable, poorly written, thinly sketched with a massive surge of plot holes that pile up like Swedish snowfall in December. With lame action and a lack of attention to actual character development, Lisbeth’s fourth outing reveals that the world may not need Lisbeth Salander anymore. At least not this version.
CONCLUSION: The Girl in the Spider’s Web erases the angry avenging angel elements of Lisbeth Salander to make way for a bland-washed pastiche of the character, only to then embroil her in a run-of-the-mill techno-thriller that lacks imagination and surprises and can only mock real moodiness or tension.