Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo may have been a global publishing sensation a decade ago – launching a trilogy of bestselling novels and multiple film adaptations – but it feels like the rest of us are only now catching up with Lisbeth Salander’s paranoid worldview. Amid the mixed signals of 2018, where it feels like reality has been nudged off its natural axis by malevolent digital forces, we probably need the sullen Swedish hacker more than ever. With her black hoodie and biker leathers, Lisbeth is a pint-size Batman with abusive men in her sights, a bisexual goth vigilante able to leap cyberspace firewalls with a single keystroke who is also pretty handy with an electric cattle prod.
After David Fincher’s deluxe $90m adaptation of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in 2011 – starring Rooney Mara as Lisbeth alongside a weirdly bumbling Daniel Craig as her investigative journalist partner Mikael Blomkvist – comes this second-generation Hollywood rebrand made with half the budget but a surfeit of energy. The Girl In The Spider’s Web is so determined to make a clean break from previous iterations that it leapfrogs the rest of the late Larsson’s original trilogy to adapt the first instalment by David Lagercrantz, who has continued the novel series since 2010.
Lisbeth is now played by Claire Foy, newly abdicated from Netflix’s The Crown and clearly enjoying swapping ermine-lined robes of state for elaborate ear piercings, charcoal vest tops and a wicked back tattoo. When she isn’t prowling the Stockholm techno club scene or padding around her minimalist concrete lair in bare feet, Lisbeth is still the elite hacker one hires to “do the impossible”, which brings her into the orbit of nervy former NSA coder Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a man desperate to reclaim a nifty computer program capable of hijacking the world’s nuclear arsenal.
The abrupt escalation into global espionage feels very James Bond
This abrupt escalation into global espionage – involving various state security services, a paramilitary Russian gang with excellent branding and a Jason Bourne-style roaming US asset played by Lakeith Stanfield – feels very James Bond, not least because the killer app at the top of everyone’s Christmas list has the Fleming-friendly designation “Firefall”. For Lisbeth, it requires an absurd amount of multitasking: chasing down multiple leads while reconnecting with her old sidekick Mikael (Sverrir Gudnason), bonding with Balder’s autistic teen son and grappling with toxic ghosts from her own past. No wonder she smokes, gloomily and constantly (a minor act of rebellion that now seems oddly transgressive in a mainstream Hollywood film).
In the hands of Fede Álvarez, the Uruguayan writer/director behind the effective chamber horror Don’t Breathe, the result is a restless, surveillance-heavy thriller that feels slick but strangely anonymous for long stretches. There are artfully bleak Scandi backdrops, a crunching car chase and the odd queasy jolt – sometimes administered via cattle prod, sometimes via a rug-pulling surprise – that suggests a much wilder, weirder movie straining to get out.
At one point, a hunted Lisbeth is scrambling for transport and, despite heading for the snowy dirt-tracks of the Stockholm countryside, opts to carjack a Lamborghini Aventador, an awesome supercar that would turn into a seesaw at the first speedbump. It is played as a sight gag but it also works as a metaphor: Lisbeth may be the perfect hero for our troubled times but with The Girl In The Spider’s Web she has yet to find her ideal vehicle.