The #MeToo era would seem like the ideal moment for the return of Lisbeth Salander, the iconic heroine of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. In Larson’s books, in the trio of Swedish movies made from them, and in the American adaptation made from the first, Lisbeth—played by Noomi Rapace and then Rooney Mara—is an abused woman who sets her sights on abusive men, an avenging angel with a hoodie and a laptop. In The Girl With the Spider’s Web, which attempts to reboot the franchise with Claire Foy in the lead, Lisbeth is still an angel, which you can tell because the movie introduces her standing in front of a statue of an angel, its wings spreading from her leather-sheathed torso. And she’s still avenging, setting a trap for a wealthy businessman who’s just gotten off scot-free for beating up prostitutes and celebrates his freedom by beating up his wife. After he spots her in his apartment, she shoves the statue off its pedestal and a snare tightens around his foot, pulling him into the air as the angel crashes to earth. Director Fede Alvarez, who comes from the world of horror filmmaking, isn’t shy about leaving his symbols on the surface, but the scene seems to contain a symbolic import he hasn’t fully thought through: In order for bad men to get what’s coming to them, Lisbeth has to lay herself low.
The Girl in the Spider’s Web is subtitled “A New Dragon Tattoo Story,” but the connection to Larsson’s work is mostly a matter of intellectual property rights. Larsson died before the first book was even published, having completed only three in what was planned as a much longer series of novels. But franchise culture abhors a vacuum, and so after the original trilogy was tapped dry, Larsson’s Swedish publisher tapped author David Lagercrantz to reprime the pump. Spider’s Web is based on the first of Lagercrantz’s Lisbeth Salander novels, and it’s “new” in the way New Coke was new, familiar enough so you can tell what it’s aiming for, but it’s subtly, and sometimes not-so-subtly, off.
The movie, which was adapted by Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight, starts in familiar-enough territory, with a child Lisbeth and her sister, Camilla, waiting fearfully in a mansion atop a snowy cliff for their father to call them into his room and sexually abuse them. The sequence feels like a leering fairy tale, apt for Larsson’s novels, which, to judge by as far as I got through the first one, balance superficial feminism—the original title of the first translates as Men Who Hate Women—and a morbid fascination with the particulars of their degradation. (Think a vaguely high-toned version of Law & Order: SVU.) Lisbeth can’t save her sister, so she runs, jumping off a balcony that seems to be hundreds of feet above the ground but somehow landing safely and dashing off through the snow. Camilla doesn’t turn up again until much later, when she’s played by an eyebrowless, blond Sylvia Hoeks, seeming substantially less human here than she did as one of Blade Runner 2049’s replicants. But the ghost of that initial scene hangs over the movie: Did Lisbeth Salander, defender of women, begin her career by abandoning one?
It’s not necessarily a bad idea to explore, although it would seem to violate the spirit of the character as she’s been established in the franchise thus far. But the bigger problem is that this question, so crucial to understanding who Lisbeth might be, has diddly to do with The Girl in the Spider’s Web’s main plot, which involves a stolen computer program that could give a bad actor control of the world’s entire nuclear arsenal. The story ropes in Sverrir Gudnason, taking over the role of journalist and Lisbeth whisperer Mikael Blomkvist, Stephen Merchant as a software developer, and Lakeith Stanfield as a National Security Agent. (Stanfield, at least, is excused from the other native English speakers’ requirement to speak in an approximation of a Swedish accent.) Also on board are Phantom Thread’s Vicky Krieps, The Square’s Claes Bang, and Mindhunter’s Cameron Britton, and if you’re able to remember who they played and what their characters did an hour after the movie ends, you win a special prize.
The whole movie is shiny and sleek, fetishizing motorcycles and high-performance sports cars that can’t be too practical in the Scandinavian snow. There’s one especially mesmerizing sequence where Lisbeth is trapped in a room rapidly filling with smoke and has to fight off men in gas masks with large, glowing red eyes. Foy does her level best with Spider’s Web’s version of Lisbeth, who’s such a stoic that she staples her own bullet wounds shut without the benefit of anesthesia.
But for Alvarez, Lisbeth Salander is an icon first and last, which is to say she never feels like an actual person. Here, she’s just a Goth version of James Bond, and if this is Alvarez’s audition for the next Bond movie, then give him the job—he’s exactly the kind of director with style to burn and not too many ideas who you wouldn’t mind seeing donate two years of his career to an aging franchise. But there was a time when the Dragon Tattoo movies had more to contribute than moody set pieces and artfully lit sport-fucking. In this version of the story, the avenging angel is just dead weight.