To call The Nutcracker and the Four Realms an adaptation, or even a retelling of E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King and Marius Petipa’s The Nutcracker, would be misleading. A more accurate term would be “a bastardization” of the classic short story and ballet. A lot happens in Four Realms but very little of it matters much less makes any sense.
Four Realms is the story of a young girl Clara Stahlbaum (Mackenzie Foy) and the adventures she has one night at a Christmas party held by her Godfather Drosselmeyer (Morgan Freeman). Before you ask her name is pronounced, “Star-bomb.” Admittedly a wonderfully badass name that is wasted in Ashleigh Powell’s script. Clara finds out she is a Princess, which means her recently deceased mother Marie (Anna Madeley) was a Queen. She stumbles into the middle of a cold war between the realms and inadvertently heats it up. To top it all of there’s a machine that brings toys to life. Sprinkle in treachery, evil clowns, and a smidge of ballet and it’s the wonderful classic Holiday tale we all know and love.
Let’s start from the beginning: Young Clara is teaching her little brother Fritz (Tom Sweet) how to build a mousetrap. By “mousetrap” I am of course referring to the classic 1980’s Milton Bradley game. The object of the game was to construct an elaborate Rube Goldberg device that ultimately does nothing but sow dissent and acrimony among all who play it. I’m only half joking. Clara does build an elaborate Rube Goldberg device to catch a mouse and unlike the game, it works. It takes almost a full minute for the trap to go through its machinations before dropping the cage onto the mouse. Luckily the mouse was waiting patiently for it machine to work itself out.
Lass Hallstrom and Joe Johnston co-directed Four Realms. The opening is their way of showing us that Clara is a special girl. She’s interested in mechanics and gears. Not frivolous things like dresses and makeup. She has a curious and inventive mind.
Foy’s Clara is the least of the problems in Four Realms. Foy’s Clara was a refreshing mix of confident with just the right amount of self-doubt befitting her character’s young age. She has a wonderfully expressive face that conveys stoicism and great emotion without overplaying the moment.
Long story short the whole family is broken up by the death of Marie. Depressed and grief-stricken, Clara is in no mood to go to her Godfather’s party. Her Father (Matthew Macfadyen) utters one of my favorite unintentionally morose and ominous lines all year: “Christmas is coming whether we like it or not.” He gives Clara a gift from her mother, a bejeweled Faberge egg with a lock but no key.
At the party, she shows her Godfather, Freeman with an eyepatch, her Mother’s gift. He chuckles knowingly as the two bond over the wonders of science and mechanics. He promised her a special gift but it’s hidden at the end of a long rope. Clara follows the rope into
Narnia the Christmas Tree Forest. She finds a key tied at the end of the rope and just as she reaches for it a mouse jumps out, grabs it, and runs away with Clara chasing it.
From here she will be plunged into palace intrigue as she meets the four other regents of the realms. We have the Sugar Plum Fairy (Keira Knightley) ruler of the land of Sweets, Hawthorne (Eugenio Derbez) ruler of the land of the Flowers, and Shiver (Richard E. Grant) ruler of the land of Snowflakes. Now for those of your counting along you might notice that’s three, plus Clara’s mother makes four. Of course, you’d be wrong because Four Realms doesn’t trifle with such silly things such as math and logic.
There’s a fourth reagent, Mother Ginger (Helen Mirren), leader of the land of Amusements. So counting Marie, that’s five rulers but only four realms. Which means that Marie was Queen of them all, which makes sense because as we learn she is the one who discovered them.
Just roll with it. It’s all you can do.
Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy is far and away one of the best and most fun parts of Four Realms. She starts out as a hyperactive, chirpy, confidante but soon transforms into a bawdy Mae West inspired, demented, fascist dictator hell-bent on total domination. The Sugar Plum Fairy tricks Clara into giving her the key that operates a giant whirling machine with the power to bring toys to life. She orders tin soldiers to be placed under the ray. The Nutcracker (Jayden Fowora -Knight) stares on in horror, “You can’t do that. They’re made of tin. They’ll be hollow. They’ll be huge!” To which the Sugar Plum Fairy, and I’m not exaggerating, purrs and says, “Wonderful!”
At one point, as the Sugar Plum Fairy leads her army of giant tin soldiers to attack Mother Ginger, she declares, “Ooh. Big men in uniform with guns. It gives me the shivers.” Knightley continues her treasured holiday tradition of turning in a fully committed, bonkers performance in a movie totally undeserving of it.
Now you might be asking yourself, who is the Nutcracker? What is he doing there? And why does the Sugar Plum Fairy want to invade the Land of Amusements? I’ll answer them in order. First, he was guarding a bridge that led from the Christmas Tree Forest to the Land of Amusements, which made him the first person Clara met in the realms. As for why he’s there? I don’t know. He offers nothing to anything and has zero impact on the plot in any way, shape, or form.
As for why the Sugar Plum Fairy is attacking Mother Ginger and the land of Amusements? Because she feels like it. I’m not being facetious, that’s her literal motivation. Clara learns as she arrives that the other three realms have shunned the fourth realm but we never learn why. Not a huge deal, it’s just the entire catalyst of the plot. Once she learns of the three Regents hatred for Mother Ginger, Clara leads an army to invade the land of Amusements, and presumably kill Mother Ginger.
Mirren as Mother Ginger is wasted, as she is given about as much to do as the Nutcracker. She shows up only to tell Clara that all she knows is wrong. But before she can tell her why the two are interrupted. It’s an irritating script contrivance because the whole situation can so clearly be solved by letting a character utter either a word or a sentence. We never know what the conflict was or how it came to be misunderstood. All we know is that the Sugar Plum Fairy has been lying this whole time. About what? Your guess is as good as mine.
For about five minutes Four Realms almost works. The Sugar Plum Fairy invites Clara to a ballet to show her the story of how the realms came to be. Misty Copeland is an accomplished dancer and it’s a shame her pristine abilities are chopped to pieces by Hallstrom and Johnston. The duo cut away from the ballet to Knightley’s Sugar Plum Fairy explaining what we just saw. It’s akin to having a narrator for a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.
A pity because Linus Sandgren’s camera work is breathtaking when he’s allowed to film Copeland and the rest of the dancers. The camera swirls around as we see the set unfold as Copeland gracefully glides through the frame. Unfortunately, the editing obliterates any sense of rhythm both in Copeland’s performance and the film’s pacing. The camera zooms in on Copeland’s toes, then cuts to her upper torso as she spins. Editing and framing are crucial when filming dance, ballet especially. This is a stark contrast to Sandgren’s other work, First Man. First Man was a gorgeous, meticulously astute, and immersive piece of cinematic craftsmanship. Under Hallstrom and Johnston, Sandgren is so hobbled he cannot even convey the beauty of movement of a dance sequence.
The one person who somehow escapes unscathed in all this is the production design by Guy Hendrix Dyas. For all the problems in Four Realms, the sets are not one of them. Dyas somehow captures a surreal reality for Clara’s world and a colorful and exaggerated fantasy for the different realms. Granted the designs are not perfectly nuanced, but they are perfectly suited for what The Nutcracker is: an abstract fairy tale told in broad strokes. By that measure the design of Clara’s castle, Mother Ginger’s hulking rusted mechanical doll, and disturbing Russian dolls/evil clown hybrids are all pitch perfect for what the feel of The Nutcracker is at its heart, a simple story told with music.
James Newton Howard’s score is dull, predictable, and a bombastic bore. It is made even more tiresome as Howard sprinkles in bits of Tchaikovsky’s score. A choir sings as set pieces are revealed but the result isn’t awe, wonderment, or even reflective. Instead, we feel tired and angry at knowing there is a better score, yet due to the filmmakers’ own hubris, they have neglected to use it because they have something “simpler” for us to listen to.
Four Realms is as hollow as the tin soldiers. A story that wastes the clear talent of Fowora-Knight, as the Nutcracker, as well as Foy’s Clara. It is a movie of so little joy and creativity that Richard E. Grant, who has shown such humor and pathos over his career, is reduced to having his face covered by icicles. Grant’s character has no lines, save his introduction. I didn’t even realize it was him until the credits rolled.
I had thought Peter Rabbit and Bohemian Rhapsody represented the heights of modern-day cynicism. But I was wrong. Four Realms is so unconcerned with its audience it can’t even be bothered to try and figure out why anything that happens matters. If the movie doesn’t care, why should we? Worst of all is the disservice to Copeland and Foy, whose talent shines so bright it is clear even through all its dreck. A shrill, naked, cash grab, Four Realms’ ultimate betrayal is not it’s lack of faith in us but it’s lack of faith in itself.
Image Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios
‘Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ Is a Post Mortem for J.K. Rowling
A side note before we get started, this review will contain spoilers. If finding out that so and so might be such and such, or that a great all-powerful whatchamacallit is actually a McGuffin, might ruin the whole thing for you, then please wait until after you’ve seen the movie.
Fair? Okay then.
Part of my job as a critic is to try and figure out who might be the intended audience for the movie I’m watching. If it is for die-hard fans than I can judge it appropriately and vice versa; if it seems intended for a wider audience. For the life of me, I can’t figure out who in the hell Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is for.
The Crimes of Grindelwald, not only has no audience, but it also has no clue either. I wasn’t a fan of the first Fantastic Beasts either, and normally that would give me some kind of guideline in which to proceed. “If you liked the first one then you’ll love this one…” But I’m not so sure that’s the case. J.K. Rowling wrote the script, and she seems hell-bent on ignoring the last decade or so worth of writing that she’s done just to perpetuate the forward march of this cynical cash grab of a cinematic eyesore.
For the uninitiated, and thus explaining why you heedlessly jump past the spoiler warning, The Crimes of Grindelwald takes place a scant three months after the first Fantastic Beasts. Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), the author of the titular text so beloved by Potter fans, is asked by the Ministry of Magic to help fight the evil wizard Grindelwald (Johnny Depp). The actual crimes of The Crimes of Grindelwald buggers the mind as to where to begin.
Midway through the second movie in the franchise and I’m still at a loss as to why I’m supposed to care about Newt. He’s hardly a character and as played by Redmayne, more a mess of jitters and jumps. It’s not entirely Redmayne’s fault; Newt only feels half-formed. It’s as if Rowling is making it up as she goes along.
Grindelwald is essentially wizard-Hitler who views non-magic beings as beneath the master– I mean rightful power, wizards. A timely idea, to be sure, but Rowling seems hesitant to really do anything with it. Grindelwald has his assistant kill a baby, off-screen, as he walks away. He sweet talks people into joining his crusade without actually convincing anybody either through magic or basic rhetoric.
David Yates, who directed the last Fantastic Beasts, as well as the last four Harry Potter films, seems more at a loss at Rowling’s patchwork script than we are. Characters behave and say things that make sense but then they do things that should make sense but don’t actually make any kind of sense. Watching The Crimes of Grindelwald, I found myself understanding what the intent was but also noticing they had skipped all the steps to get there.
The best part of the last movie was far and away the characters of Jacob Kolwalski (Dan Folger) and Queenie (Alison Sudol). Queenie is the sister of Tina (Katherine Waterhouse), Newt’s crush from the last movie. Queenie and Jacob had a bizarre but quirky chemistry. The two were the only charm in an otherwise charmless movie.
Rowling and Yates have Jacob and Queenie come to London to visit Newt. Upon seeing them, Newt discovers that Jacob is under a love spell that Queenie put on him. Good thing Newt figured it out because the two were engaged to be married. Pity poor Jacob only found about the engagement after Newt lifted the spell. Jacob and Queenie both want to get married but Jacob understands the Ministry would forbid it, while Queenie seems baffled by Jacob’s reluctance.
All of this is fine, although odd. You would think the wizard would be the one who would have to fight off the No-Maj but we’re looking over that quibble. We’ll also overlook the incredibly creepy implications of Queenie’s total disregard for consent as well. But what we will look at is Queenie’s defection to the Aryan metaphor that is Grindelwald’s army.
It doesn’t make any sense. Well, it does, but it doesn’t really. You see, Queenie comes to believe that Grindelwald doesn’t want to hurt the No-Maj. He just sees them as beasts of burden. Since he wants to do away with the old ways, which forbid Jacob and her getting married, she ‘s all aboard the allegorical genocide train. But I had to infer that because it’s never really discussed. Switching from “No” on a fascist regime that believes in separate but equal to an “eh, maybe” requires more than a, “But he’ll let us get hitched, baby!” (Not an actual quote.)
We can see what Yates and Rowling are trying to do. But there’s never any real moment where we go, “Ah. I see why she’s doing this.” Instead, we’re left scratching our heads wondering if being the sweetest woman in the franchise means you’re destined to become an acolyte of some dapper, hipster wannabe, slurring Hitler.
Queenie’s “decision” is only a subplot. A large portion of The Crimes of Grindelwald concerns itself with a mystery that isn’t really a mystery. A mystery has clues and is about plodding toward a reveal of some sort. The mystery here is who is Creedence’s (Ezra Miller), real parents? I’m just kidding the real mystery is what happened to Leta Lestrange’s (Zoe Kravitz) little brother? I see you fell for my funny little joke, the real mystery is what is Grindelwald’s master plan for Creedence?
The beauty of Rowling’s script is that of none of those mysteries are remotely tied to one another. And oh yes, Creedence is Aurealis Dumbledore. Lost? I regret to inform you that seeing The Crimes of Grindelwald will only make you more lost.
Creedence looking for his parents is the drive but has no payoff until the last line of the movie. Except it’s not a revelation so much as a moment of bad fan fiction by someone who didn’t read the books. But since it’s written by the author of the original books it becomes all the more confusing. It would be one thing if The Crimes of Grindelwald had offered its own explanation, either explaining how this is possible or at the very least re-write its own backstory. None of that happens. Grindelwald just grabs Creedence by the shoulder and tells him his name, even though the movie itself never backs up this claim.
Leta’s tortured past and guilt over murdering her little brother somehow makes even less sense. We spend half the movie being intentionally and obviously kept in the dark about Leta’s “tragic backstory.” At the climactic moment, Leta reveals all in a baffling denouement. A denouement that includes kidnapping, familial revenge, hypnotism, baby switching, possible rape, spousal slavery, and the Titanic. Suffice to say it raises more questions than it answers. However, Kravitz’s breathless delivery of Rowling’s blindfolded style of plot structure is a gem of a performance in a movie filled with fool’s gold.
But what about Leta’s past with Newt? Why is she marrying Newt’s brother Theseus (Callum Turner) when in the flashbacks she seems taken with Newt? Why do Newt and Theseus have such an antagonistic relationship? If you want answers to these questions, I can’t help you and neither can Rowling or Yates.
Which brings us to Depp. I have no problem believing that Depp is capable of allegedly committing heinous acts and then convincing his large and dedicated fanbase that he did nothing wrong. I dare say, Depp is better at this than Grindelwald is. If only because Depp doesn’t walk around advertising with every fashion choice, every mannerism, and every syllable, “I’m evil!”
Grindelwald convinces his followers to come to his cause by showing them images from the future, the second World War. He conveniently leaves out the six million murdered, and in their place shows aerial assaults, tanks, gunfire, armies marching, and the atom bomb exploding. Now, in the historical context, this is a nightmarish vision. Jacob even yells out, “Not another war!” The first World War is still fresh in their minds, images of another even greater war would be shocking.
It makes sense. But no one ever mentions the last world war so it seems out of left field, nazi allegory aside. It further demonstrates how superficially committed to the metaphor Yates and Rowlings are. They want the bad wizards to be a stand-in for nazis. Except they don’t want to do the legwork to put them in the fake historical context. For a spin-off of a franchise infamous for its world building the world seems hardly even thought of.
Yates is a perfectly fine director but he has no imagination and no personality. Even Dumbledore (Jude Law) a character outed for being gay after the fact, becomes tiresome and boring in his hands. I wouldn’t say that Yates and Rowling straightwash him, but they never say he’s gay either. Yates supplements actually uttering the word “gay” by showing us CGI images of young Grindelwald and young Dumbledore looking into each other’s eyes longingly as they make a pact.
“You two were like brothers.” One character says. “We were more than brothers.” (Actual quote.) More than brothers! Wowza!
The special effects are as good as you would expect from a multibillion-dollar franchise. But good special effects in a movie with no real direction is meaningless. The effects have no real impact because the story and characters have no real impact. The battle at the end as Grindelwald flees victoriously, his grand army now assembled, is a dazzling light show, but nothing more.
Phillip Rousselot is shackled by Fantastic Beasts misguided marriage to drab and dreary color schemes. Rousselot, who when working with Tim Burton, fills his frame with vibrant colors. A cinematographer who’s been working since the 70’s, Rousselot has shot such exquisite movies as A River Runs Through It, Dangerous Liaisons, and Interview With a Vampire. I mention his resume to show you just how woefully underused his camera work is. Imagine the possibilities of a Fantastic Beasts movie where the camera does more than just merely record whatever the special effects team can dream up based on Rowling’s say so?
The Crimes of Grindelwald is a bad movie. It is incompetently made by people who know better. They have decided to try and pawn off a knowingly inferior product on us for a few extra dollars that none of them need. This isn’t a movie, it’s a pyramid scheme. See this and the next one will be better, we swear.
It would be a pity to end this franchise with wizard-Hitler getting away and basically winning. But, I have zero desire to sit through another one of these. I don’t care to see him defeated, nor do I care how he is beaten. If it means having to sit through J.K. Rowling carve up her own world, changing things as she goes because the times have changed and so have the trends, then count me out. I don’t care anymore.
Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Studios
The Five Under Discussed Holiday Movies
It’s that time of year again. The time of year where people with ordinary jobs find themselves swamped with hours and little to no respite for their own sanity’s sake. It’s also time for a return to that age-old tradition we have here at BENEATH THE SCREEN OF THE ULTRA-CRITICS, the listicle.
Since we’re only mere days away from being positively bombarded with the stuff, we figured, why not beat everybody to the punch. Enjoying the leftover Halloween candy, we compiled a list of five under-discussed Christmas movies. These are movies that are more likely to be seen in something like Alonso Duralde’s Have Yourself A Movie Little Christmas than the average Buzzfeed article.
So, without further ado, here are five Holiday movies that somehow always fly under the radar come this time of the year. As usual, the numbers mean nothing, except to state how many they are.
1. GREMLINS (1984) Dir. Joe Dante
Somehow or other people always forget Gremlins. I’m not saying it’s a forgotten classic. YouTube film buffs are too prevalent, to allow such a thing like that to happen. But Joe Dante’s cult classic doesn’t get the love of say Die Hard when it comes to the holidays.
The special effects still hold up but more than that, Gremlins has a wonderful sense of playfulness and good cheer about it. The problematic ancient Chinese wise man aside, Gremlins holds up remarkably well. Horror movies are usually aimed at adults but Gremlins aims at the whole family. Through all the blood and screams it somehow captures the feel of a small town at Christmas.
But the creme de la creme comes in the form of what is now viewed as one of the great monologues of the eighties. Phoebe Cate’s Kate tells a dark tragic Christmas story that haunted children years after seeing the film. Dante’s tongue in cheek direction and a script by a young Christopher Columbus that’s a sly subversion of the holidays elevates Gremlins from a goofy cult film to a holiday classic.
2. A Diva’s Christmas Carol (2000) Dir. Richard Schenkman
Look. Someone needs to acknowledge that Vanessa Williams is our Christmas Lord and Savior, and guess what? It’s sure as shit gonna be me! Williams has been criminally underrated for years, and as much as I’ve held my peace about it, I cannot allow her being perpetually overlooked for A Diva’s Christmas Carol anymore. This movie is from the height of VH1’s (are they even around anymore?) media career, and it’s the perfect lady Christmas film to kick back, grab some hot chocolate, and enjoy. Camp? Check. The best melodrama crafted biopic prior to Walk Hard? Check. It gleefully embraces every biopic trope and rolls it up in a familiar Christmas package.
Keep your Bill Murray and Scrooged, I’ll take the Beyonce of Christmas movies any day.
3. Christmas Again (2014) Dir. Charles Pokel
Charles Pokel’s Christmas Again is possibly the least cheerful of all the films on this list. Less a reminder of the reason for the season and more a dour melancholy look at a man looking for love whilst selling Christmas trees. But underneath it all, it has a great big heart.
Noel (Kentucky Audley) is broken-hearted and adrift. Like any person, he soothes his soul by running a Christmas tree lot. He meets Lydia (Hannah Gross) and soon the two find themselves falling for each other. Complications and revelations arise but ultimately Pokel’s nuanced and sweet exploration of working-class people during the holiday season is warm and deeply moving.
Pokel gives us a peek into the ins and outs of running a Christmas tree lot, the differences of sales technique, understanding the varying types of firs, inventory, and of course, the people. Nothing much happens and, if you’re looking for Christmas magic, you’ll be disappointed. But it’s a sweet little movie that normally glides under the radar of the average Christmas aficionado.
Bonus: The song that plays over the closing credits, a cover of Christmas Everywhere sung by Fran Alexandre, will instantly become one of your favorite carols of the year.
4. Edward’s Scissorhands (2005) Dir. Tim Burton
Most people would cite Burton’s other movie The Nightmare Before Christmas, which is a Burton produced movie, not a Burton-directed one. We disagree, though the visual design of Nightmare is classic and loving crafted. But Burton’s Edward Scissorhands has a haunting, loving way about it that leaves one breathless from the depth of empathy and imagination from which it sprang.
On its face the story of Edward (Johnny Depp), a Frankensteinesque creation with scissors for hands is preposterous. Yet, Burton and Caroline Wilson, the screenwriter, have us buy the entire premise hook, line, and sinker within seconds. Burton has always been attracted to stories about outsiders, but few have been as lonely and misunderstood quite like Depp’s Edward. Winona Ryder’s Kim, Edward’s love interest, is no less an outsider, and the two find solace in each other.
It’s the tender ache at the center of Edward Scissorhands which sets it apart from the rest of Burton’s filmography. Oh sure, all his films have a tenderness and a loneliness, but none of them have had Deep and Ryder. Ryder for her part is the reason why Edward Scissorhands works. If we don’t buy Kim’s feelings for Edward, then the whole thing falls apart. Burton and Wilson don’t use Christmas as a backdrop to clash with the goth aesthetic Burton fetishizes. They use it as a way to explore family dynamics and more importantly, the idea of loving a stranger and giving him a home.
5. Ernest Saves Christmas (1988) Dir. John R. Cherry III
Jim Varney’s Ernest P. Worrell has never gotten the credit he deserves as a singular American comedic creation. A cross between Jerry Lewis and a southern Mr. Bean, Ernest is a man so eager to please he can never see how insufferable he is. Ernest Saves Christmas is both a satire of how corporatist and consumer-driven Christmas is while magically somehow finding heart and warmth in the cold harsh cynical decade known as the eighties.
Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) comes to L.A. to find a children’s show host Joe Carruthers (Oliver Clark) so he can pass on the mantle of Santa. Unfortunately for Santa, Ernest is his taxi driver. An old man Santa leaves his bag of magic in Ernest’s cab and Ernest must try to return it so Santa can pas the bag onto Joe and Christmas can continue. Along the way, Ernest and Santa meet a young runaway grifter Harmony Starr (Noelle Parker). The three have to get Santa’s bag to Joe so they can make him believe. The plot sounds thin but, believe us, the last scene where Ernest is flying Santa’s sleigh as he careens out of control is like mother’s milk to a child.
With jokes like Joe taking a new job as an actor in a horror film Santa’s Slay, Ernest Saves Christmas shows itself to have a sardonic eye. Miraculously, it never veers into made for Hallmark Christmas territory, though it is corny at times. But that’s to be expected with any Christmas movie, much less an Ernest one. Imaginative while at times surreal, such as when the reindeer get stuck in customs, Ernest Saves Christmas is a classic that’s never been embraced by cult fans or Christmas fans. The film has a gonzo humor most Christmas films avoid; making it kind of prickly in places. If not for Varney’s rubber-faced exuberance somehow winning us over, the film might have collapsed under its own weight.
A Christmas movie in L.A.? And it’s not a Shane Black movie? It’s a Christmas miracle.
Images Courtesy of Warner Bros., VH1, Factory 25, 20th Century Fox, and Buena Vista Pictures
‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Is a Defanged by the Numbers Thriller
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.