Movie Review: ‘Girl in the Spider’s Web’ strangely shifts cast, creators, vibe

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'The Girl in the Spider's Web' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” was a book-to-screen hit with Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 Swedish original and David Fincher’s 2011 Hollywood remake.

This weekend, we get the newest installment, “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” a movie that is similar in name only after scrapping the author (god speed Larsson), director (farewell Fincher) and cast (adios Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig) for an entirely different experience that feels awkward to watch considering it’s essentially the third makeover in the last decade.

This time, tatted-up computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is hired by a computer programmer (Stephen Merchant) to steal software dubbed “Project Firefall,” which taps into the world’s nuclear defense systems. This draws understandable alarm from NSA agent Ed Needham (LaKeith Stanfield), who pursues Lisbeth along with tech gangsters known as the Spiders, causing her to seek help from her journalist pal Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason).

Based on the novel by David Lagercrantz, it’s the fourth installment in the Millennium book series but the first not authored by creator Larsson, who died of a heart attack in 2004. It’s an odd choice to leap ahead to the fourth entry rather than chronologically follow the books, “The Girl Who Played With Fire” (2005) and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” (2007).

Apparently, Sony wants a fresh start, which is certainly what we get, but why alienate fans of the books and fans of the movies? About the only thing that feels similar here is the opening credit sequence, featuring black liquid graphics akin to the 2011 flick, which jammed to a female cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” by Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Also absent are composers Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, replaced by Roque Baños.

As the film begins, it takes some getting used to Foy, who won an Emmy for Netflix’s “The Crown” and shined as Neil Armstrong’s wife in “First Man” (2018), but has the tricky task of following in the footsteps of the originator Noomi Rapace (“Prometheus”) and the Oscar-nominated reprisal by Rooney Mara (“Carol”). For years, Mara claimed she’d return as Lisbeth but later dropped out, sparking rumors of Alicia Vikander before Foy ultimately got the nod.

Foy looks the part, flipping her hood to reveal a nose piercing under goth eyes, and acts the part with a familiar swagger as she goes vigilante on the piggish men of Stockholm and banters with lesbian lovers in bed. But as she ends a phone call with her secret male flame Blomkvist — jealous that his wife is in the room — it’s hard to maintain the romantic tension that Mara established with Craig when we’re seeing Foy and Gudnason for the first time.

Thankfully, we get compelling new characters with Sylvia Hoeks (“Blade Runner 2049”) as the icy, red-clad antagonist Camilla, and LaKeith Stanfield, who recently rose to prominence in “Short Term 12,” “Straight Outta Compton,” “Crown Heights,” “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You,” in which he worked a telemarketer cubicle to prepare him for his bookish NSA foil here.

Beyond the casting changes, the most noticeable change is an overall shift in tone. After the departure of director Fincher (“Se7en,” “Zodiac,” “Gone Girl”), this reboot feels less like a crime thriller than it does a Bond or Bourne action flick. Both genres are gripping in their own right, but the Lisbeth Salander franchise was always meant as a psychological thriller. It’d be like turning Clarice Starling into an action star. She can do it, but that’s not why we love her.

And yet, that’s the disappointing direction taken by filmmaker Fede Alvarez, who put himself on the map with the indie horror flick “Don’t Breathe” (2016). At the time, his silent horror premise seemed like a novel concept until John Krasinski did it much better in “A Quiet Place” (2018), proving that a cocked shotgun is far more effective than an absurd turkey baster.

In “Spider’s Web,” Alvarez shows commendable skills behind the camera, finding ways to make pedestrian scenes come alive with long-take Steadicam shots across the NSA headquarters, while crafting kinetic action sequences with each precision sniper shot.

But for all the thrilling action, the script can’t rise to the level of the directing. Co-writing with Steven Knight (“Locke”) and Jay Basu (“Song of Songs”), Alvarez doles out a complex plot with a predictable twist you’ll see coming from a mile away — right from the framing device.

It gets increasingly unrealistic as Lisbeth survives an apartment fire by diving underwater in her bathtub. It’s a cool move but one that sparks logical questions. Will she hold her breath until the fire goes out? Will she reach up through the flames, burning only her arm as she dials for help? As we cut to her coughing water out of her lungs, we learn that the sprinkler system apparently put out the fire, but it’s a bridge too far in suspending our disbelief.

By the time the antagonist survives a nasty car crash in the mountains, you’ll probably roll your eyes. Oh well, at least the villain’s magic air bag allows for a final showdown atop of a snowy cliff, bringing the film full circle to its opening image with a callback to the prologue.

As the credits roll, you’ll shrug more than cheer. And so, Alvarez’s “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the equivalent of Tomas Alfredson’s “The Snowman” (2017), a disappointing follow-up to riveting horror breakthroughs in “Don’t Breathe” and “Let the Right One In.” Don’t worry, “Spider’s Web” isn’t nearly as abominable as “The Snowman,” but it’s just as cold and dreary.

My advice: Wait for cable or streaming to get caught in this mediocre web.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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