The timing really couldn’t be better. Late author Stieg Larsson’s seminal Lisbeth Salander character returns as a poster child for the #MeToo movement in the new guise of Claire Foy, an actress having her own specific moment in the accolade spotlight. If only the movie highlighting both wasn’t so much of a patchy, improbable affair, recasting the abused Salander more in a female James Bond mould than the jaggedly antisocial pariah of old.
The plot is loosely based on author David Lagercrantz’s continuation of Larsson’s original Millennium trilogy, the difference between it and director Fede Alvarez’s super chilled-out thriller being that the movie’s tale of international espionage is far more fascinating than the heroine at its centre. The exact reverse was true of both Swedish and American versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009, 2011) by Niels Arden Oplev and David Fincher respectively, and the two other parts of the trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) both by Daniel Alfredson.
In all those Salander was a gutsy bisexual punk hacker whose traumatic childhood caused her to turn sexual abuse vigilante and trailblaze a vision of right-on female empowerment to her peers, her tiny circle of friends and law enforcement. Here she’s still that twisted avenging angel – an opening salvo shows her coolly stripping one victim of his anger, pride and money – but now also an absolute IT genius who can enter any system with two clicks of a mouse to cause global frenzy. She can also drive fast and furiously a neat range of flashy vehicles, and escape any death-defying situation in true Tom Cruise fashion. It’s all too much, but still not enough for Foy to accurately make her mark on the iconic character. She certainly eclipses Rooney Mara in the Fincher adaptation that’s for sure, but barely comes close to the bewitching quality and steely resolve Noomi Rapace exuded in the original franchise foundation.
Still, you have to admire Foy for having a game try in the high-velocity narrative that’s been heavily rejigged from the source material. After a new, played-down, childhood-abuse backstory establishing Salander’s death-wish motivations, she’s hired by quantum scientist Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), who is frightened that his new software programme, Firefall (see what they did there?), which is capable of hacking into all the world’s nuclear sites, could fall into the wrong hands after being sold to the US government. Salander’s job is to illegally download the programme from the NSA, under the shocked eyes of tech security agent Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield), and erase it.
Problem is, Balder’s autistic savant son August (Christopher Convery) is the only one with the passwords to enable the deletion. And then the data is stolen by the mysterious Spider organisation, which targets both Balder and August, and so Salander is once again caught in a web of deceit, double-cross, past family history and mental distress. As usual she calls Millennium magazine writer/unfaithful lover Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) for help and once more puts her accidental protector in perilous danger as the identity of the Spider leader is revealed. Frankly, Gudnason’s Blomkvist is more a spare part, it’s Stanfield’s Needham who makes the most impression as he travels to Sweden to first confront Salander and then be her backup.
It’s very much a retread of the familiar themes avid readers of the books will instantly recognise, but problems arise about midway through the gripping action when a couple of truly stupid plot holes downgrade the disturbingly dark events, placing the movie firmly into scarcely believable potboiler territory. Until that collision between exciting edginess and mechanical emptiness occurs, director Alvarez mines the suspense and abject horror that his previous films, Don’t Breathe (2016) and the Evil Dead remake (2013), traded in expertly. The nail-biting car chases manifest headlong speed-racer precision and one sequence featuring complex prosthetics is easily the grisliest shock to the system you’ll see this year.
The stylish and wintry Swedish locations give the movie seriously stunning looks, but the psychological shadings are dutiful rather than providing anything substantial to match that icy backdrop – the laughably emotional climactic confrontation being the best example. Alvarez does keep the wonky tension at a premium even as Salander turns into a goth Wonder Woman, facing ever-more ludicrous threats armed with just her trusty cattle prod. But the feral intensity is gone, the seat-edge creepiness is missing, the eerie psychology absent, and while The Girl in the Spider’s Web is ultimately an entertaining thriller, it’s sadly and conspicuously nothing else.