I left the mystery-thriller The Girl in the Spider’s Web feeling equal parts happy and puzzled. And then I made the mistake of thinking about it, and my increasing bafflement crowded out more and more of my pleasure.
I realized that director and co-writer Fede Alvarez doesn’t understand computer hacking. In the early-going, Goth hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy, miles away from her role as ’Lisbeth II in The Crown) is approached by a brilliant programmer (Stephen Merchant) to steal something called FireFall, which will let its user control all nuclear missiles everywhere. He created it, gave it to the U.S. and then had second thoughts, which if you’ve seen Merchant’s comedic roles seems like the sort of thing he’d do.
FireFall is already a bit of a stretch, but as the film progresses, we learn that Lisbeth can also use her tech savvy to control airport security devices, open locked doors, look (and shoot) through walls, and even take control of another car during a high-speed chase, mostly from her iPhone and once while still woozy from a hypo full of tranquilizer. And is it even possible to knock people out with their car’s airbags?
I’m not claiming to be an expert in any of these fields, but you don’t have to be a chef to know when the food is overcooked. And I do know a little about screenplays; this one is so heavy on exposition it may actually have more words than the novel on which it’s (loosely) based. People constantly refer to each other by their full names and even job titles, lest you forget that Lakeith Stanfield plays NSA agent Edwin Needham, or that Sverrir Gudnason is journalist Mikael Blomkvist, the Watson to Lisbeth’s problem-solving Holmes.
But the more people talk, the more chance they’ll say something wrong, or at least inexplicable. Why, for instance, does a heavily scarred bad guy named Milos spill the beans on his nefarious employer when Mikael merely approaches him out of the blue with questions? And why does the head of Swedish intelligence boast that her country never went to war while the U.S. “never missed one?” A quick Google search shows that Sweden fought in more than a dozen conflicts before the United States even existed. You know the Thirty Years’ War? They were in that for 18 years!
There are other plot holes that would reveal too much if raised here, but in the end, the biggest tear in the Spider’s Web is that Lisbeth has been reduced (if that’s the right word) to a kind of James Bond figure, righting geopolitical wrongs. When she first showed up in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Swedish version, 2009; American remake by David Fincher, 2011), she was known as the woman who hurt men who hurt women, which seems pretty prescient almost a decade later, well into the #TimesUp movement.
But while Spider’s Web opens with a scene that reveals Lisbeth’s father to have been a sexual predator from whom she fled as a girl, followed by a bit from the trailer with the grownup Lisbeth avenging an abused wife, it never lets her get back to that kind of work again.
This movie is technically the sequel to Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo, though none of its cast or crew is the same, and for its source it skips to the fourth Lisbeth Salander novel, and the first written by David Lagercrantz, taking over from the late Steig Larsson. If that’s too confusing a provenance, it only stresses the notion that Spider’s Web is best enjoyed by not thinking about it too much.
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