Cinema Dispatch: The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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The Girl in the Spider’s Web and all the images you see in this review are owned by Sony Pictures Releasing

Directed by Fede Álvarez

A bit of context is perhaps in order before we get started.  I haven’t seen the Fincher film or the Swedish films, but I have read the first book and got a bit through the second one and enjoyed them both.  I don’t actually KNOW if this is based on one of the books or the post-humus stuff that Stieg Larsson had written down somewhere (probably could have looked that up before going to see this) and where exactly this is supposed to “exist” as far as some sort of continuity, so the phrase of the day is CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC.  I do think that Lisbeth Salander is an interesting character and the idea of making more or less standalone movies with her is a solid idea.  However, this still seems like a pretty big gamble across the board, what with David Fincher no longer being involved, this more or less being the third iteration of the franchise in a decade, and frankly I don’t know if anyone is really still talking about Stieg Larsson’s books anymore to warrant another film about this character.  However, all that is kind of outside my wheelhouse as a critic since I’m here to tell you if the movie is good and not how much money it’s gonna make.  What’s REALLY important is if this version of the movie (with a heavily slashed budget) can capture what made these books and this character so compelling in the first place, or if this is just a brazen attempt to squeeze a few more bucks out of an obviously dead horse.  Let’s find out!!

Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) is a computer hacker in Sweden who’s gone through some TERRIBLE abuse in her life that may or may not have been covered in the books (it at least takes place after the first one but I have no idea if it incorporates the other two), but there’s really no need to go into it in detail.  She’s a vigilante hacker, she helped the reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) solve at least one mystery in the recent past, and she occasionally takes on jobs that pique her interest.  One such job comes to her from SUPER COMPUTER PROGRAMMER Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) who worked for the NSA and begs her to steal a program he wrote for them which would allow the user to more or less take control of all the world’s satellites and therefore take control of all the nukes… I think.  I mean it sure SOUNDS scary enough, so Lisbeth agrees to steal it and manages to do so with very little effort and at the consternation of Frans’s successor at the NSA Edwin Needham (LaKeith Stanfield) who travels to Sweden to try and get it back.  He’s not the only one after the program however because very soon after she steals it her SUPER HACKER WAREHOUSE is attacked by dudes in masks who work for a very illusive crime organization that may or may not have some connection to Lisbeth’s past.  With total nuclear annihilation now on the table, Lisbeth is adamant to get the program back which involves finding where Frans and his young son August (Christopher Convery) have run off to in the ensuing chaos, avoid the attention of Swedish Secret Service agent Gabriella Grane (Synnøve Macody Lund), and get Mikael involved once again to see if his SUPER JOURNALISM SKILLS can make sense of all this.  Will Lisbeth Salander save the world from nuclear devastation and stop whatever EVIL organization has their eyes set on using it?  Can she protect everyone she cares about from whatever is that seems to be targeting her, or will she lose whatever few connections she still has left to the rest of the world?  How does she manage to look so bad ass even with that Moe Howard haircut!?

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“Why I oughta!”

Since I haven’t seen the other films I can’t really say how this stacks up to them and maybe I’ll be fawning over them even more than this film here, but really this is one of my favorite spy films since MAYBE Skyfall.  Is it silly and ridiculous?  Oh you bet it is, but that’s what I LOVE about it!  Its pure spectacle filmmaking of the kind we haven’t seen since the golden age of Bond and the GOOD Die Hard movies.  This is the kind of movie where EVERYTHING that happens in it from the smallest detail is there for the audience in a way that makes it seem like one big stage production just for us; as if the cast can see us all sitting there and is working their asses off to keep us clapping.  It’s why Lisbeth Salander can predict exactly where people will be for the most dramatically timed traps imaginable, why main characters are the ONLY ones who can find clues, and how the whole movie is premised on WIZARD HACKING with computers made of magic; up to and including an encryption method that I THINK is a direct reference to Darkwing Duck.  I DON’T KNOW WHY, but I know I loved every minute of it!

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“Are you sure it’s a good idea to have this meeting in front of the EYE OF SAURON?  He’s KIND of a gossip.”

I know a lot of that sounds like a SO BAD ITS GOOD situation, and really I don’t think it is.  I DO think that this movie makes a conscious stylistic decision to be broader and more moment to moment engaging rather than being strictly realistic in a lot of cases.  The big distinction I feel is that despite the amount of plot conveniences and MAIN CHARACTER POWER moments, it still stays rather cohesive as a narrative with each scene making sense in its own slightly cartoonish world.  We mostly see this in terms of aesthetic like say with Scott Pilgrim whose unreality is painted on the screen as a way to recreate the hyper-stylized feel of the comic book.  Here though, the design and overall pallet still feels very grounded with a lot of handheld cinematography and very cold colors to get across the literally cold environment as well as the detachment of many of its characters; yet the story itself is very close to a superhero movie, and probably one of the goofier ones at that.  This is why I think comparing it to Bond is so apt (they even have a lavish credits scene at the beginning!) as that series has always relied on the unflappability and straight up MOVIE LUCK of its protagonist to sell you on his action bona fides and I get a lot of that here; albeit without the long running history to give it a sense of gravitas.  In that way, maybe it is kind of a dinosaur of a movie, something that feels out of place in modern cinema to an extent, but even so I still found it to be utterly charming and genuinely engaging throughout its run time.

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Goldfinger WISHES he thought of this one!

Speaking of it being kind of old fashioned, I am a bit mixed on how the movie handles its heavier subject matter like female oppression, queer identity, abuse, and neurodivergence.  Now for ME, I thought the movie handled these issues just fine or at the very least didn’t MISHANDLE them to any significant degree.  However, there was always a slight feeling that everything was STILL coming from a straight male perspective and I can’t really disentangle my own biases of what I like to see in a movie versus fair and believable representation.  The movie is not afraid to show that Lisbeth is bisexual, but her female lover in this film is utterly disposable outside of one admittedly neat little bit of misdirection in the middle of the film.  I don’t recall how much the books got into whether or not Lisbeth is on the spectrum, but they seem to be coding her as such as well as the young boy in the movie who falls under her care at one point.  Is it just lazy shorthand for why she’s so good with computers and what not, or is it an ingrained part of the character that the filmmakers don’t need to point out and make A THING about?  I mean I LIKE the movie so I want to lean towards the latter on it, but it’s not really my place to say.  What might be even more contentious however is how the gender politics of the movie are handled and to start off with something positive, I actually do think that the relationship between Lisbeth and someone else in the movie who I won’t reveal for spoilers feels really genuine in the way that two victims of abuse can sort of blame each other for things that are outside of their control.  It almost feels like a copy of Gamora and Nebula’s situation from Guardians of the Galaxy which is good, though I think the ending kind of undercuts things a tad.  The one I’m particularly torn about though is when it comes to her role as a vigilante fighting against men who abuse women, and I think this one kind of gets at the heart of my hesitation to go all in on the film’s representation of these issues.  In this world, Lisbeth can basically pull a Dexter on abusive men and met out justified and clean justice for the women they’ve harmed; no fuss no muss.  The movie is ultimately a fantasy no matter how grounded its aesthetic is, and this sort of I CAN FIX THINGS BY BEATING UP BAD MEN extension of that feels cathartic as all heck, but is this just MY interpretation of justice as a man?  Is basically having Lady Batman beat the crap out of rapist something that’s empowering or even escapist entertainment for whom those people are real threats in their day to day life?  I mean there are discussions all over the place about Batman being an ineffective and selfish idea of justice (if Bruce Wayne the BILLIONAIRE wanted to fix crime, he’d throw money at social programs instead of beating up muggers in a silly costume), so where does that fall when said fantasy takes on a more gender specific threat?  I don’t know the answer to that (not helped by the fact that the director and writers are all men) but what I can say is that I did enjoy those scenes when they came up even if I did have that twinge of hesitation while watching it.

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“My schemes for patriarchal domination have been foiled once again!  CURSE YOU, THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO!!”

As far as things that are GENUINELY bad, well… they’re few and far between but they are there.  Some of the camera work is a bit wonky with WAY too much shaking at very odd times (hacking isn’t any more intense if the cameraman is waving around a handheld) and I thought the hand to hand fighting could have used a bit of work.  Maybe the low budget meant they could only invest so much in fight choreography, but for the most part the action doesn’t rely on fisticuffs and is instead about clever(ish) manipulation of the environment which makes up for it greatly.  I also think that Lisbeth Salander, as great as Claire Foy does in the role, needs a bit more character definition.  True, her character is SUPPOSED to be closed off and not-particularly emotional, but it comes off REALLY awkward at points; especially whenever she has to have a one on one conversation with the kid.  I guess you could say it’s a bit endearing that she’s not quite sure how to handle the situation, but the lines she delivers in those moments are pretty bad and feel out of place in a movie that’s so hyper-stylized.

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“Do you like… snow?”

If we got a Joel Schumacher style Batman film after The Dark Knight instead of Nolan diving face first into his own pretentions for Rises, then this movie would BASICALLY be it and to me that’s far from a bad thing.  I like the rather broad nature of the “science” behind this movie (HACK WIZARDS!) and it feels like a crowd pleaser from top to bottom, though admittedly some of the subject matter at hand can feel a bit incongruous with that kind of filmmaking approach.  Still, the action is solid, the characters are fun, and I think they did enough right in here to warrant a few sequels even if the box office returns aren’t too promising.  Well heck, it’d be far from the first time a film I genuinely loved barely got any attention from general audiences, but it is a bit disappointing that so much seemed to be riding on the success of this movie and once again I’m in the minority for liking it, but even if I only get one movie out of this reboot I think it’s a damn good one to get.  I’d certainly recommend seeing it in theaters if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief and ride on its particular dramatic wavelength, but if you’re someone who worries about logical issues and unbelievable technology in a movie, well this is gonna be a much harder sell.  Maybe the way to save this is to make it part of a Scandinavian crime film expanded universe.  I mean I’m not saying that having this crossover with The Snowman is a GOOD idea, but I know I’d be interested in seeing it!

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