The story so far. In 2005 Stieg Larsson – Swedish Trotskyist and commissioning editor of the anti-fascist magazine Expo – published a novel. In Sweden it was called Men who Hate Women. In the English-speaking world its better known as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The book was phenomenally ambitious – a crime thriller that in passing talked about rape, fascism and the cowardice of capitalism.
In 2006 and 2007, The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest followed – just as politically acute and similarly with the dysfunctional relationship between the antisocial hacker Lisbeth Salander and the fading journalist Mikael Blomkvist in the foreground. All books in the so-called “Millennium Trilogy” were international best sellers and Niels Arden Oplev directed 3 superb films of them.
Even Hollywood tried to profit from the Millennium phenomenon. In 2009, David Fincher directed a mediocre remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and although Fincher promised follow-ups, nothing followed. As Larsson had died from a heart attack on 2004 (all books had been published posthumously) that was apparently that.
Until now. In 2015, David Lagercrantz wrote the “fourth book in the Millennium Trilogy”, which Fede Alvarez has now filmed. And although the film (and presumably the book) contains characters with the names Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, it is a pale shadow of its predecessors.
We can’t blame Claire Foy too much. Foy plays an exciting Lisbeth, albeit without the unsociable danger of Rooney Mara or particularly Noomi Rapace in the earlier films. And as Blomkvist, Sverrir Gudnason has little to do except look pretty and ineffectively loiter in the background of the car chases and fight scenes.
There are a lot of fight scenes. In the earlier films there was often violence – sometimes extreme but never gratuitous. In The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the endless gun fights are very effectively choreographed – and the Swedish landscapes are equally beautifully filmed – but the form regularly trumps the content.
In Larsson‘s books (and to a large extent in the resulting films) Lisbeth is an emotionally complex fighter and non-binary feminist icon. Here, her riskiness consists more or less of the fact that she wears black clothes and a nose ring. The radical heroine also likes to drive expensive motor bikes and cars (no doubt donated by the film’s rich sponsors).
The Girl in the Spider‘s Web‘s template is more the James Bond films without the prevailing sexism. Lisbeth comes again and again into mortal danger, but instead of killing her immediately, the various villains give her the time to save herself.
Every few minutes, there is a ridiculous plot twist, which we’d dismiss if he only had a second to think about it. An airport is paralysed with a mobile phone, everyone realises simultaneously where they can find the critical secret code. But we don’t get this second to think as we must always rush to the next action scene.
Unlike Larsson‘s books, which are full to the brim of political debate, we are presented with a couple of ethical dilemmas, but only as afterthoughts. There’s something about access to nuclear codes, and apparent allies half-heartedly betray each other, but there is no tension, and left-wing hackers, US secret service agents and representatives of the Swedish government find it easy to work with each other without posing any serious questions.
The Girl in the Spider‘s Web is a beautiful film. Unfortunately it is not an intelligent film. It could have been an above-average franchise film, but the presence of Salander helps no-one. It would have been better for everyone if Alvarez had made a film with a different main character. If he believed in an afterlife, Larsson would be turning in his grave.