Let’s be honest. ‘The Girl’/Millenium (whatever you wish to call it) book series is nothing to shout about. Some might even call it dumb. While I don’t necessarily agree with that adjective, I find them to be decent mystery-thrillers at best. And I think David Fincher understood that, which is why his rendition of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is so bloody engaging. He, along with screenwriter Steven Zaillian, uses the uninteresting mystery of the decade-long cold case as a platform to explore the profoundly interesting character, Lisbeth Salander (and to a lesser extent, Mikael Blomkvist too).
Fincher’s film is less about “who killed the little girl all those years ago” — when it’s revealed, I wasn’t remotely invested in the mystery to be even a little bit surprised — and more about identity, trauma and sexuality. The whodunit recedes into the background as the character study takes centre stage. Which is why after catching its quasi-sequel The Girl in the Spider’s Web (brand new cast and crew but is still somewhat connected to Fincher’s film) I tweeted out just one sentence: Director Fede Alvarez has missed the point completely *facepalm emoji*.
Fede Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web is an action-packed James Bond movie, if James Bond had boobs and dressed like a sexy goth chick. And it’s not the awesome Casino Royale-esque James Bond movie either. It’s Spectre or Quantum of Solace. Here Lisbeth gets tangled up in international politics and government conspiracies, she teams up with an NSA agent, carries a gun, chases around nuclear launch codes on her sleek motorcycle and at one point, rides that motorcycle of a dock, lands on a frozen pond and speeds away. Did Q pimp out her motorcycle tyres? The only thing missing from that scene is Monty Norman’s iconic James Bond theme. And I was sitting on my ass in the cinema, hands tucked inside my hoodie thinking, this is not what I signed up for.
But before any of that, I want to make one thing clear: this isn’t an unwatchable movie. I don’t believe a man of Alvarez’s talent (his previous film, Don’t Breathe is a solid piece of thriller filmmaking) is capable of crafting something unwatchable. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a fine, paint by numbers hacker-thriller. Lisbeth is hired by an ex-NSA employee to steal a top secret government program that’s in danger of falling into the wrong hands. But soon everything goes sideways and Lisbeth finds herself caught in an international turmoil with journalist and friend, Mikael Blomkvist, cybercriminals and shady government officials. It has some fun action sequences — like the aforementioned motorcycle frozen pond shiz — and it’s pretty, thanks to cinematographer Pedro Luque. But it’s also hollow, with one-dimensional characters and a screenplay that’s as sharp and edgy as a practice sword.
Fincher’s ‘The Girl’ film is thematically dark. Its content is harrowing and uncomfortable to witness. Watching it is akin to swimming in a pool of mud and blood — by the end of you’ll need a hot shower. He inhabits his world with morally ambiguous characters that wallow in the grey and carry with them baggage so heavy, they hardly ever crack a smile. It’s a bleak picture, the kind that you don’t want kids anywhere near even IF you censor the explicit nudity and F-bombs. There Rooney Mara’s (who rightfully received an Oscar nod and frankly should have bagged the award too) Lisbeth is a troubled soul. Skinny (probably because of the drugs and poor eating habits), lonely, ruthless, emotionally distant and sexually charged. She sees the world as a grim place and we understand why (the scene in which she’s raped is agonizing to watch — it left me broken). But underneath Lisbeth’s unhingedness is raw sexiness and underneath that is a woman whose heart is warm, though her heartbeats are masked in a way that they’re barely audible.
In Alvarez’s film, darkness is merely a stylistic choice and Claire Foy’s Lisbeth is reduced to a sexy superhero who dons a black leather outfit. Her aesthetic is tamer, packaged to appeal to the widest possible audience. Her actions are tamer too. Just compare the scene where she tortures her rapist in Fincher’s film to the opening sequence in this. There, although we support her vengeance, we don’t cheer while watching it. We don’t want to be there in the room while she’s taking care of business, but Fincher grabs us by the back of our necks and forces us to look. So we look, as our stomachs squirm uncomfortably. But we also don’t want her to stop — that pig deserves the knife up his ass!
Here, the opening sequence (the one we see in the trailer with the man hanging upside down from the ceiling) barely touches its R-rating. It doesn’t provoke, doesn’t shock and doesn’t make you feel dirty. In fact, it doesn’t make you feel anything, playing out far more docile than the Batman/Joker interrogation scene in The Dark Knight. Foy delivers a satisfactory performance, but the writing isn’t challenging enough for an actor of her calibre.
In Fincher’s film, sex is also used as a tool to explore the depths of these sexual adventurers. Both Lisbeth and Mikael are good people, but their moral compass doesn’t always point North. Mikael cheats on his wife with his editor (Robin Wright), who’s cheating on her husband. During their joint investigation, Mikael and the bisexual Lisbeth start fucking. She starts falling for him (the only odd character choice in the film), but to him, she’s only a good friend and a good fuck, not more. He reserves his deeper feelings for Robin Wright’s character. Even the manner in which our protagonists have sex, reveals something about their characters. In Alvarez’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, all that is pushed aside for car chases and explosions. Here, Mikael’s character depth is as thin as toilet paper.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is supremely inferior to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But that’s to be expected. After all, there are very, very few out there capable of creating mood and atmosphere as well as the master who helmed masterpieces like Se7en, Zodiac, Gone Girl and The Social Network. But comparisons aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t gratifying entertainment in its own right. And that’s what’s most disappointing, isn’t it? That the film is unable to keep you at the edge of your seats when Alvarez’s previous work — the work that got him noticed — is known for doing exactly that. Here, Alvarez doesn’t live up to his own standards.
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The Girl in the Spider's Web
Comparisons [to Fincher's film] aside, The Girl in the Spider’s Web isn’t a gratifying entertainment vehicle even in its own right. And that’s what’s most disappointing, isn’t it? That the film is unable to keep you at the edge of your seats when Alvarez’s previous work is known for doing exactly that. Here, Alvarez doesn’t live up to his own standards.
The Girl in the Spider's Web