Stieg Larsson’s posthumously released Millennium trilogy is largely known for its first entry, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a hardboiled murder mystery with an unflinching commentary on Sweden’s high sexual assault rate. It’s one of the grittiest stories to become an international bestseller in recent memory, eventually getting adapted to the big screen twice in the space of two years. Released to significantly less fanfare than the inaugural outing, the other two stories in the Millennium trilogy (The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest) continue Lisbeth Salander’s quest for vengeance against men who assault women, and yet take the story in a far sillier, borderline campy, direction. They’re still unsparing on the gruelling theme of assault, but the stories around this theme get progressively ridiculous, and don’t require being taken at face value.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the first Millennium story not penned by the late Larsson, is the silliest of them all. With no logical narrative in which to continue the twin stories of Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the source material by David Lagercrantz got overblown in its sheer preposterousness - and it was enough to lead to this soft reboot of the big screen franchise. Following on from David Fincher’s middling take on Dragon Tattoo in 2011 (skipping adaptations of the two direct, Larsson-penned sequels), Spider’s Web falters due to not embracing the campiness at the centre of the story.
Director Fede Alvarez has shown a talent for heightened genre storytelling, especially with his 2016 effort Don’t Breathe. Here, he seems to mute that aspect of his filmmaking personality, leading to a final product that forces an unearned grittiness; in reverence to Larsson’s original novels, it commits to a self serious tone that’s at odds with the ridiculous story, and stops it from becoming the campy thriller it so clearly needs to be. No movie featuring a suitcase full of dildos as a plot device should play it this straight.
Claire Foy stars as Lisbeth Salander, reintroduced initially as a saviour of women who have been abused by men, before quickly shrugging off this aspect of her identity entirely to focus on her computer hacking day job. She’s hired by Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a former NSA employee who has designed software that can access the world’s nuclear codes, which he urgently wants Salander to delete from existence. Unfortunately, when taking on this task, masked men break into her apartment, attempting to murder her and running off with the software for themselves. Tracking down her former lover, journalist Mikael Bolmkvist (Sverrir Gudnason), she tries to find out who these men were - and finds that she’s come under the threat of a criminal gang, with ties to her abusive father. Meanwhile, an NSA employee (Lakeith Stanfield) heads to Sweden, hot on Salander's tail after the department gets hacked.
Lisbeth Salander is one of the meatiest female roles to have emerged this century, with both Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara putting their individual stamps on the character in prior adaptations - two fantastic performances that perfectly channel the complexities and hidden traumas of the character. With the role of Blomkvist noticeably downgraded from a male lead to a lesser supporting role this time around, the entire film rests on this character’s shoulders more than ever before. Which is why it’s unfortunate that Claire Foy feels distractingly miscast in the role; she doesn’t embarrass herself, but she sticks closely to the Rooney Mara interpretation of the character in a manner that works to her detriment. If anything, her performance is notable for representing the first time in which Lisbeth Salander has ever felt like a formulaic onscreen presence.
The prestige respectability of Foy, fresh off her Emmy winning turn in The Crown, makes her an odd choice to collaborate with Fede Alvarez - especially as he’s still dealing with silly genre material. I couldn’t help but feel Jane Levy, his lead actress from his prior film and earlier Evil Dead reboot, would be a better fit for his interpretation. Working with Foy has led him to shrug off his stylistic assets as a filmmaker to chase middlebrow respectability, which this material doesn’t deserve. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo may be a harrowing read, so its gritty adaptations make sense; the rest of the Millennium series doesn’t need to be handled with the same sensitivity, and that proves to be the all too apparent downfall of Spider’s Web.
Admittedly, Foy isn’t the only person miscast or under utilised in her role; this is a film that wants us to buy Stephen Merchant as a computer genius and former NSA employee, and forces Vicky Krieps (who held her own against Daniel Day-Lewis so effectively in Phantom Thread) and The Square’s Claes Bang into thankless roles which barely register within the narrative. As for the story, any entertainment derived from its preposterousness feels unintentional due to how badly conceived it is. Hinging entirely on unrealistic coincidences and high-tech deus ex machinas, it betrays any semblance of reality Larson established with his original trilogy.
Worse still, the villains are so badly written, that the only brief reference to their masterplan makes them sound like the good guys. They want to stop the Americans getting their hands on software that can access the world’s nuclear codes, with no dialogue expressing deeper intent to use for themselves or any malicious purposes (we’re supposed to just assume this is the case, as they’re the nominal villains). And yet, in the age of Trump, how on earth can keeping his tiny hands away from a device which could trigger the end of days be considered a bad thing?