From the opening credits, it’s clear that director Fede Alvarez hopes audiences will draw comparisons between The Girl in the Spider’s Web and the James Bond films. With its overly stylish opening credits, Alvarez’s sorta-sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo isn’t so much interested in evoking its predecessor (why bother?) as it is with establishing Lisbeth Salander as the next 007. Unfortunately, the latest installment in the Dragon Tattoo saga underwhelms with a predictable story and generic doomsday plot.
Familiarity with the Swedish trilogy (starring Noomi Rapace) or the novels on which it was based isn’t necessary to get on board with The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which acts as a soft sequel to David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (starring Rooney Mara). The new film stars Claire Foy as the eponymous girl, a punky, introverted hacker named Lisbeth who’s made a career out of punishing misogynistic men with the occasional help of a journalist named Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason). Although the opening scene in Spider’s Web keeps with the tradition of Lisbeth striking down a violent misogynist with great vengeance and furious anger (much to our delight), the film quickly dismisses with what has become her defining motivation. What follows is a boilerplate thriller about bad guys acquiring nuclear weapons codes and taking over the world.
To its credit, this installment sheds some light on Lisbeth’s background and childhood, giving her some additional motivation beyond the previously exhausted rape/revenge narrative. Lisbeth’s father was an abusive, deranged man who lorded over a criminal empire and manipulated his two daughters. When she was just a child, Lisbeth made the difficult decision to leave her sister Camilla behind and save herself — something that weighed heavily on her conscience and informed her career as the hacker vigilante known for rescuing women from evil men.
Unlike the previous films, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is not based on a novel by Stieg Larsson, who died suddenly in 2004. Larsson had originally conceived the novels — known as the Millennium series — as a 10-book franchise. Following his death, author and crime journalist David Lagercrantz was commissioned by the publisher to continue the series, beginning with The Girl in the Spider’s Web. The disconnect between those authors is as apparent here as the filmmaking discrepancies between Fincher and Alvarez — known previously for directing the Evil Dead remake and Don’t Breathe. But those films were riveting and visceral; neither of these words would be used to describe The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which, despite its doomsday plot, lacks a sense of urgency.
Foy is, however, fantastic as a slightly older and wiser (and less pierced) Lisbeth Salander. Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara are tough acts to follow, but Foy manages to capture emotional and linguistic subtleties while bringing a certain maturity to the part. The screenplay, by Alvarez, longtime collaborator Jay Basu, and Steven Knight, doesn’t do Lisbeth — or Foy’s performance — justice. Lakeith Stanfield and Stephen Merchant are similarly compelling in their thin roles as the NSA expert from whom Lisbeth steals the pivotal nuclear program and the man who created it, respectively.
Elsewhere, the film egregiously wastes talent: Vicky Krieps, the breakout star of Phantom Thread, is relegated to the insulting bit part of nagging girlfriend to Mikael Blomkvist. She mostly serves as attractive background noise to the communications between Mikael and Lisbeth. Claes Bang, who was pitch-perfect in last year’s idiosyncratic dark comedy The Square, is wildly miscast here as a stereotypical Bond henchman-type with bleached hair and an affinity for plastic masks. And finally there’s Cameron Britton, who was phenomenal as the bizarrely beguiling serial killer Edmund Kemper in Mindhunter, but who feels underutilized here as Lisbeth’s quirky hacker pal named “Plague.”
The stylish opening credits sequence isn’t the only thing The Girl in the Spider’s Web borrows from the 007 franchise: The bad guys are cartoonishly bad, the twist is choreographed from a mile away, and Lisbeth’s orphaned past and her relationship with her sister feel ripped straight from Bond mythology (specifically Spectre). The Girl in the Spider’s Web tries to give us the female version of James Bond; instead, it gives us a gender-swapped version of the worst 007 movie in recent memory.