Lisbeth Salander is no longer anonymous. Much as the secretive hacker would like to stay out of the spotlight, the latest on-screen incarnation of Stieg Larsson’s franchise-spawning literary anti-heroine opens with Lisbeth (Claire Foy) enacting her own kind of revenge on a badly behaved man, only for a local news outlet to instantly pin the nefarious deed on her. And yet, in this on-screen incarnation of the series — the third version to hit theaters, the fifth film total — it’s one of many changes made to the girl with the dragon tattoo, who has evolved beyond dead-eyed computer whiz into a slightly more emotional warrior with a real flair for punishing baddies.
Even better, she’s now played by Emmy-winner Foy, who turns in the best on-screen depiction of Lisbeth yet, facing down stiff competition from both original Swedish star Noomi Rapace and Rooney Mara.
Fede Alvarez’s wholly recast sequel jumps years ahead of the ending of David Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” picking up the twisted story after the events of the third book in Larsson’s Millennium trilogy (all of which were adapted into Rapace-starring features). Author Larsson died before his original trilogy was even published, and subsequent Lisbeth-centric novels have been written by David Lagercrantz, including the source material for “Spider’s Web,” which is concerned with Lisbeth’s life after being revealed to the Swedish people as both a prodigious hacker and the kind of woman you don’t want to challenge.
Public scrutiny — in Larsson’s last book, Lisbeth went on trial for a trio of murders, it’s hard to get more public than that — hasn’t stopped Lisbeth from wanting to hide, and Foy ably imagines Lisbeth as a tough-talking genius who has gotten increasingly bad at burying her human emotions, a better and richer take on the character than previous incarnation allowed. The film opens with a flashback to Lisbeth’s terrible youth, mostly spent in an icy and sprawling mansion alongside her pale-faced twin sister Camilla. It’s Camilla who idolizes their obviously evil dad (bad people in Lisbeth’s world continue to be transparently bad, no matter how many twists the stories try to pile on), and so when young Lisbeth runs away from home, it’s not a surprise that Camilla chooses to stay behind.
It’s not even that much of a surprise how that choice impacts the pair so many years later, but that doesn’t stop the film’s script (written by Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight) from weighing down the story with unnecessary twist after inscrutable contrivance. Lisbeth, for all her visibility, spends most of her time toiling at clandestine operations, so when she’s tasked with retrieving a dangerous piece of computer programming that threatens the safety of the entire world, she jumps at the chance. Created by the skittish Frans Balder (an underused Stephan Merchant), the program is the sort of thing that shouldn’t be in anyone’s hands, let alone the many nefarious organizations gunning for it, from the NSA to the secretive Spider Society. What follow is a cat and mouse (and mouse and mouse and mouse…) game in which it’s strangely difficult to remember who is just who, and why, and how, and for what.
Inevitably, both the NSA and the Spiders come for the nasty tech (and Lisbeth), leading her down a predictably dark path in search of the person pulling the strings. The answer isn’t surprising, but it’s laden with undercooked revelations that muddle the story, misunderstanding that narrative “twists” don’t always result in a “twisted” story. Alvarez’s horror bonafides are mostly muted here, but some of the film’s bigger action setpieces allow the “Evil Dead” director a chance to play, including a heart-pounding early attack on Lisbeth’s home and a final act shoot-em-up packed with clever surprises. Unfortunately, it’s the middle that sags; that’s where “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” loses much of its momentum.
At least the convoluted story allows for the introduction of characters both new and returning, including Sverrir Gudnason as journalist/love interest Mikael Blomkvist, Lakeith Stanfield as an NSA heavy with his own mission, and Sylvia Hoeks as a grown-up Camilla. Still, the contrivances that bring them together become more grating as the film winds on, and at least one of them devolves into a superhero-esque baddie before the film’s final confusing revelations.
It’s Foy, however, that drives the entire film. The actress has already turned in one revelatory film performance this year, thanks to Damien Chazelle’s “First Man,” but her turn as Lisbeth is further proof that the full spectrum of her talents have yet to be tapped. Her Lisbeth is more human than she has been in any previous incarnation, though Foy doesn’t add emotion to the mix at the cost of dialing down her character’s more opaque attributes. Lisbeth is never going to be cuddly or sunny, but that doesn’t mean she has to be robotic or impossible to read. That’s something that Foy and Alvarez clearly understand, and the result is a heroine not only worth cheering for, but one worth loving and even understanding.
For once, it’s Lisbeth who traps the audience in her own web.
Sony Pictures will release “The Girl in the Spider’s Web” in theaters on Friday, November 9.