Thursday, May 30, 2024

‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Is a Defanged by the Numbers Thriller

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One of the worst things any movie can do or be is boring. Which brings us to The Girl in the Spider’s Web, an excruciatingly ill-paced and dull-witted action thriller. A remarkable movie in that it somehow sidesteps anything even remotely interesting or fun.

Spider’s Web is an adaptation of the fourth in a series of books by Stieg Larsson. At least the first three were, the book this movie is based on is by another author David Lagercrantz. I haven’t read the books, but I have seen the movies. So I can say with some conviction that Spider’s Web is the most pedantic and shallow of the cinematic series.

Fede Alvarez has directed what is possibly the most empty-headed and conceited thriller of the year. He somehow makes government conspiracies and the threat of nuclear annihilation rote and predictable. Spider’s Web is the type of movie that opens with a shot of a spider crawling across a chess board.

The character of Lisbeth Salamander (Claire Foy) is a modern noir creation. A bisexual loner with exceptional hacking skills, fierce self-reliance, and a deeply wounded soul. The latter being almost a requirement for being the hero of a conspiracy techno-thriller.

Her counterpart in these stories, Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) is the near opposite of Lisbeth in all things. A suave, handsome magazine journalist who is suffering a bit of a mid-life crisis. Where Lisbeth lives on the fringes, Mikael lives the high society life. Together the two solve murders and uncover dark byzantine government conspiracies.

It is a premise that sounds more interesting than either Alvarez or his screenwriters Jay Basu, Steven Knight, and Alvarez himself, have cared to make it. For example, the computer program, Firefall, that exists as the McGuffin for Spider’s Web is a program that grants complete and utter control of the nuclear stockpiles to a single user. 

Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) created the program because the NSA asked him to. An ex-NSA employee, Balder confesses to Lisbeth that he was promised he would be in control of it. Shocking a government intelligence agency would somehow go back on its word.

Balder hires Lisbeth to steal it for him. She does, rather easily. NSA Security expert Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) catches Lisbeth hacking into the NSA system to download the file. His keystrokes prove to be futile. So with just precious seconds to spare Edwin runs across the office and shuts off the power to the entire network. A brilliant idea, pity it was too little too late.

After shutting off the power Edwin apologizes to the room and then turns it back on. Aside from a  few murmurs no one really does anything. No one comes up to him to ask what just happened. No superior comes barreling in to shout about the massive breach of security. It is a moment used for dramatic purposes only. Much like all the other dramatic moments in Spider’s Web, it lacks any heft or tether to the real world.

Alvarez can’t help but sprinkle in entertaining bits only to undercut them with an action cliche or pompous dramaturgy. After Lisbeth successfully steals Firefall her apartment is broken into. She barely escapes before her home is blown up. As she flees the police arrive and the mandatory chase scene occurs. I understand this is an action thriller and therefore chase scenes, shootouts, and explosions are par for the course. But these scenes feel listless; like an afterthought.

The aforementioned chase scene concludes after Lisbeth rides her motorcycle across a frozen river to the other side. Instead of just driving on, she swerves to a stop, removes her helmet, and gazes ruefully across at the police.

I’m sure it’s meant to be a nod to the machismo posturing action films like these are riddled with. But I couldn’t help but wonder why a woman as smart and resourceful as Lisbeth wouldn’t just keep on going after she got to land. After all wouldn’t the police just send some more cars around after they see her just sitting there looking at them?

Anyway, Firefall isn’t the point of Spider’s Web. Unlike the other movies, this one is almost entirely about Lisbeth. Which is why it’s so sad to report back how utterly idiotic and empty it is. Mikael has no real point or purpose other to be an extra body to kidnap or call for backup when the plot calls for it.

It turns out Lisbeth’s father was one of the most violent psychopathic crime lords in Sweden’s history. She escaped as a child but her sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks) did not. She stayed behind to be sexually molested and tortured by her father.  Camilla grew up to be a vicious psychopath in her own right. She takes over for her father as the head of her father’s gang, the Spiders. The Spiders are hired by the Swedish Secret Service Office, SAPO. Led by Gabriella Grane (Synnove Macody Lund) she hires Camilla to steal Firefall.

Funny thing about violent criminals; they have a tendency to be violent and criminalistic. A point that the training school for SAPO Officers must have skipped due to budget cuts. Gabriella is unprepared when Camilla decides to not give her Firewall after she steals it. She is doubly shocked when Carmilla murders her and her agents.

Everything with Firewall is just dressing. The real meat is Lisbeth and Camilla. Maybe meat isn’t the right phrase—lunch meat would be better. Alvarez and his writers never seem to figure out how to make this inherently dramatically interesting development, interesting. Camilla has a monologue at the end, another requirement, and like everything else, it rings hollow and emotionless.

Alvarez and his cameraman Pedro Luque have draped the story in dark cold emotionless shadows. A  fitting decision considering the Swedish backdrop. Luque has a few inventive set pieces such as the conversation between Lisbeth and Mikael in opposing glass elevators. But these are mostly flashes in a dreary pan. Yes, the henchmen wearing gas masks with red LED lights in them seem ominous as they emerge from the white plume of poisonous gas. But since the henchmen have no names and are indistinguishable from any other henchmen it merely highlights the blandness of Alvarez’s direction. and script

I will say, at one point Mikael is interviewing someone who has crossed Camilla’s gang. He removes his plastic mask to show what Camilla and her men did to him. This one single moment is one of the most visceral and squirm-inducing moments of the entire film. It is a stunning piece of special effects makeup and it is wasted on Spider’s Web

Stanfield and Foy have each turned in two of the year’s best performances. Stanfield’s was Sorry To Bother You and Foy’s was Unsane. Both struggle to lift their character to a level to something slightly more fleshed out than a cartoon short. The script gives them nothing to do, and Hoeks even less. Her character is the driving force for Lisbeth and yet their scenes together drag on interminably. They say the same things over and over without any revelation subtextual or otherwise ever happening.

Spider’s Web doesn’t have the brains to be an entertaining techno-neo-noir thriller. It doesn’t have the guts to even broach the nature of nationalism. Worse, it doesn’t even have the heart to give us characters who we can relate, root, or even care about.

Alvarez has somehow made a movie about a woman on a vengeance spree against wife beaters and rapists drawn into a series of events ultimately of her own making and forced to confront her past into a predictable cliche yawn fest. What he has done, however, is craft a masterful waste of time.

Image courtesy of  Sony Pictures

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