2/10 In 2011, Sony released its English-language adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig, and it was a huge success. It pulled in $232.6 million worldwide for the studio on a $90 million budget and was pegged as one of the year’s best films, earning five Academy Award nominations, including a win for best editing. Fincher said the same creative team was planning to adapt the next two books of the Millenium series back-to-back.
Unfortunately, Sony is a terrible company that makes bad decisions, and so, for reasons that remain a mystery – seriously, by all accounts they got a script written and then, just, didn’t shoot it – The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest simply didn’t happen. In 2015, Sony announced it was “rebooting the series” – the “series” here being just one reasonably successful and critically acclaimed film that released only four years prior.
As with many reboots, it is somewhat hilariously unclear as to whether or not the studio wants viewers to associate the new film with its previous work. They fired the all-star lineup of Fincher, Mara and Craig, and had to go out of their way to do it – Mara remains under contract to do the two sequels to Dragon Tattoo, so Sony has skipped ahead in the series, at least in part, so they can get out from under her contract and bring in a far lesser actress in Claire Foy.
Dragon Tattoo was very well-liked, but not well-remembered, and Sony’s handling of this sequel/reboot seems much more appropriate for a movie that is well-remembered, but not well-liked. They’ve gone to significant lengths to swap out a twice-Oscar nominated actress and legendary director who were already under contract for a never-nominated actress and a nobody director (Fede Álvarez, who also co-writes) who they had to negotiate new contracts with, in order to give the “series” a change in direction, but while all this is going on they’re doing robust re-writes to make the new movie into more of a James Bond-esque blockbuster and pouring money into an advertising campaign for it as if everyone’s going to flock to see this sequel to a 2011 movie that’s tumbled out of the zeitgeist since then.
They extremely didn’t, by the way.
Perhaps all of this is best summarized by the final product’s eventual full title – The Girl in the Spider’s Web: A New Dragon Tattoo Story.
Some years after the events of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and those other books that didn’t get English-language adaptations because Sony would have had to let really famous and talented people do them, Lisbeth Salander (Foy) is a famous vigilante hacker in Stockholm. She’s hired by defected NSA programmer Frans Balder (Stephen Marchant) to steal a program from U.S. intelligence that is capable of hacking into every nuclear launch site in the world, because – Jesus Christ, we’ll get right directly into that. After acquiring the program, Salander becomes the target of both the Swedish Security Service, represented by deputy director Gabriella Grane (Synnøve Macody Lund), and a criminal syndicate lead by her estranged sister, Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks).
The biggest and most immediately obvious problem with The Girl in the Spider’s Web is its incredibly dumb plot details, so we’re not even going to try to avoid spoilers here. Whole hog, ending-detail spoilers for this awful movie below.
Let’s talk about Balder’s plan. Before the movie even begins, he’s written a program that can automatically hack into any nuclear launch site’s computer, and will allow the U.S. to control every nuclear device in the world. He’s already realized that this might cause some problems before the movie starts and he wants the program destroyed, but his mere existence begs the question – how did he get through writing such a program without realizing its horrifying potential uses?
Also, would this program actually be a problem? Via the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, as of 2017 there are about 9,220 stockpiled nuclear weapons in the world, with 4,000 of them already belong to the U.S. According to the most recent estimates, 100 is the pragmatic limit for the number of nuclear weapons any country could have in its arsenal – if a country really wanted to cause completely irrevocable damage to the entire world, 100 is about all it would take. The U.S. already has 4,000 of them and the resources to build however many thousands more, and in this movie, it for some reason, wants access to everyone else’s? Why the fuck?
Also, how exactly does this program work? Apparently it can hack into any nuclear launch site, but can it not hack into anything else? Is the software the runs nuclear launch sites special, somehow? Wouldn’t it be more useful to hack into other country’s government communications networks or elections systems?
To say this movie doesn’t seem to understand the difference between “hacking” and “magic” is a bit of an understatement. It’s not just implicit in its main plot contrivance, it’s explicit in Salander’s exploits. The movie’s main action sequences all revolve around Lisbeth Salander and her hacking buddies basically warping reality – locked doors open automatically before her, security cameras seem to feed directly into her brain and she’s intimately familiar with every security protocol she encounters.
Watching her and her team spend a full movie planning out even one of these completely insane sequences would be much more dramatic and fun than the entirety of The Girl in the Spider’s Web, but instead we’re asked to accept that these amazing feats are all old hat to this elite group of weirdos. They all seem to be capable of such insane feats that it undercuts any degree of tension the movie tries to generate – it’s impossible to root for our heroes against opposition when you have no idea which obstacles are meaningful and which ones are going to resolve themselves as if by magic.
But we’re not even done with spoilers yet.
Let’s talk about Camilla Salander’s plan. In a flashback at the film’s start, it’s revealed that soon after she and Lisbeth hit puberty, their father Alexander Zalachenko (Mikael Persbrandt) rolls up his sleeves and says, “It’s raping time!” Lisbeth saw what was coming, pun intended, and got out of there, but Camilla stayed behind and was sexually abused for 16 years until Zalachenko’s death, at which point Camilla inherited his vast criminal empire.
So her plan is – and this is never expressed all in one spot in the movie, I’ve had to composite this description with my own observations – her plan is to use the criminal resources she inherited from her rapist father to acquire this magical nuclear hacking program, then launch a nuke at, I don’t know, wherever, it doesn’t seem to matter, then somehow frame Lisbeth for it. Camilla wants to do this because she blames Lisbeth for not staying with her and presumably absorbing half of their father’s rapes.
Now, resentment toward family members who tacitly benefit from abuse is definitely a real thing, and it can definitely happen in cases like this when the object of resentment obviously didn’t benefit in any way, but, holy shit, that is a messy revenge scheme.
Much more troublesome is the explicit framing of Camilla’s sexual abuse as being her own fault, as well it being her only characteristic. This is a major problem for me – there’s a pretty regular pattern of movies involving rape to make that a character’s one and only destiny, her past, her present and her future. What’s her backstory? She was raped. What are her goals and motivations moving forward? She was raped. What’s standing in her way? Well Knopp, she was raped.
It’s lazy, it’s reductive, it’s deeply embedded in systemic misogyny, it reinforces the idea of sexual assault as something that forever defines a person as a victim and, worst of all, it’s boring. Human beings are not defined by their trauma, and even when they are, it’s much more interesting than this. Write better characters.
If contrivances like these are in the book, you more-or-less have to include them – but they aren’t. Writers Álvarez, Steven Knight and Jay Basu came up with these dumb, lazy items all on their own in order to enhance the base story.
The only redeeming element of The Girl in the Spider’s Web is its visual style. Álvarez does a solid job of imitating the look and feel of Fincher’s initial film, and there are some nice motifs surrounding chess and the dragon tattoo – Lisbeth Salander’s eponymous back tattoo is split open early in the movie, a visual that’s referred back to frequently. It expresses her split priorities much better than Foy, who spends the movie looking vaguely uncomfortable.
It all comes back to the question of why this movie was made in the first place. Why fire Fincher and have the new director carry over his style? Why adapt this story if you’re going to add most of the central plot points?
In the absence of any tangible answer, I can only assume it’s because of what has already been well-established over the past decade – Sony is a terrible company that makes bad decisions, and bad movies are often the result.
Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.