We’re in that weird part of the cinematic season now, when all the stuff that’s too gritty for blockbuster season but too grimy for Oscar buzz is hitting cinemas. And that’s exactly where The Girl in the Spider’s Web comes in: adapted from the Millenium series by Steig Larson and David Lagencrantz, Fede Alvarez (Don’t Breath, Evil Dead) helms the latest cinematic outing to the series that I have someone remained a newbie at despite the saturation of everything associated with it for the last decade.
In all fairness, I’m not a newbie to this series in quite the same way I was a newbie to Predator: I have read the first book, and I’ve seen the original Swedish adaptation by Niels Arden Oplev, so it’s not like I’m thundering into this article with literally no clue at all of what I’m talking about.
But that all said, I feel like I’m a newbie in a metaphorical sense when it comes to the Lisbeth Salander series, in so much as I’ve yet to be really impressed by any media that’s sprung from the Dragon Tattoo world. It’s not that I hate the stories, but they’ve never really grabbed me in any meaningful way, to the point that I have managed to avoid every version of the Millenium series that has leaked into popular media the last decade or so.
But I’m also not aggressively averse to the series in any serious way, so when I caught some trailers for the latest movie adaptation, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, I was moderately intrigued. Claire Foy, taken on the central Salander role, is a great actress, and Fede Alvarez has consistently proved himself to be an interesting director if one that still needs a little polishing around the edges. The action looked good, the plot twisty-turny, the villain appropriately ice-blonde. I was in. The film revolves around Salander’s relationship with her estranged sister, Camila, as a mysterious Spider gang attempts to wreak catastrophic havoc on the world via nuclear apocalypse.Yeah, sure. Why not?
And yes, there is plenty to like here, plenty that’s cool and slick and entertaining – the setting is appropriately bleak, the action scenes are strong (though most of the best stuff was shown in the trailer, as per usual for modern action flicks), and Foy puts in a tremendous central performance. Alvarez, bringing his horror credentials to the crime genre, delivers a decently unsettling, frigidly unemotional atmosphere, and it’s one of his most visually accomplished features yet.
But coming to this film and not being acquainted with the Salander series, I was left more frustrated than anything else. Because I felt like there was a really excellent movie – and a really excellent exploration of the Salander character – that was just lacking here. Exploring Salander’s abusive childhood and how it spurred her into the avenging vigilante she has become as an adult is such rich territory, and Claire Foy proves, when she’s allowed to, that it really should have been the focus of this film. In theory, it is, but in practice, Alvarez and his co-writers seem keener to live up to the reputation of the series as a violent, shocking crime potboiler instead of delving in to what clearly matters at the heart of this story. The resolution of Salander’s arc is neutered to barely an epilogue, and it’s just so dissapointing to see a film use the abusive childhood of two women as a gritty punchline for a story that seems more interested in motorcycle chases and icy fight scenes.
But it wouldn’t be a Dragon Tattoo movie without Mikael Blomkvist, her journalist sidekick and the impetus for the beginning of these stories in the first place. More than anything, Blomkvist feels like a desperate crowbar of a character – he doesn’t turn up till a good third of the way through the movie, and his actual connection with the plot is permanently and terminally thin. Sverrir Gudnanson isn’t a terrible choice for his character, but he feels utterly secondary to the story and never escapes that feeling of just being a necessary sidenote, a box-tick so the film can fall in line with the rest of the series. And, like so much else in Spider’s Web, a diversion from the really juicy Salander stuff that matters.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Den of Geek)