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‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ a tangled mess

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Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s “Millennium Trilogy” of crime novels – “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” – are among the most popular books of the 21st century, selling tens of millions of copies.

The books were made into films by the Swedish production company Yellow Bird; with Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander (the titular Girl), they proved wildly popular. So popular that an American adaptation of the first book was made in 2011, directed by David Fincher and starring Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig.

However, plans for adaptations of the second and third books fell through. Instead, what we get it “The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” based on the fourth book in the series, the first written by David Lagercrantz. This installment – directed by Fede Alvarez and starring Claire Foy as Salander – is an effort to continue the story set forth so brilliantly by Larsson.

Said effort is futile.

While there are moments where we’re reminded of the visceral power of Larsson’s story and Lisbeth’s character, too much nuance has been lost. Where once Salander was a relatable, complex person, this new narrative has rendered her largely inert, a collection of traumas dressed like a Hot Topic bargain bin and possessed of computer acumen indistinguishable from wizardry. There’s no reason to emotionally connect with her – even when the filmmakers unabashedly demand it.

Lisbeth Salander has become a notorious vigilante, one devoted to making men pay for the crimes they commit against women. She also does hacker/espionage stuff as well, because of course she does. Meanwhile, journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, “Borg vs. McEnroe”) has sold his magazine Millenium and is at a loss to write, having not spoken to his muse Lisbeth in some time.

Lisbeth is hired to do a job by a computer programmer named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant, “Sherlock Gnomes”); while working for the National Security Agency in America, he created a program called Firefall that can apparently take complete command of satellite communication systems, basically putting the world’s nuclear capabilities in the hands of one person. He has had a crisis of conscience and is in Sweden – along with his son August (Christopher Convery, TV’s “Gotham”) – to try and figure out how to get it back.

While Lisbeth is able to gain access to the program, she winds up getting tracked by an NSA operative named Edwin Needham (Lakeith Stanfield, “Sorry to Bother You”), who immediately makes his way to Sweden to take Firefall back. In addition, a mysterious gang known only as “The Spiders” – one with connections to Lisbeth’s past - is also pursuing the program, for reasons that are unclear.

Oh, and sprinkled throughout are flashbacks to Lisbeth’s childhood, where we’re given some insight regarding her relationship with her sister and her horrible crime lord father. Lisbeth believes both sister and father to be dead, but, well … you can probably guess that that isn’t necessarily accurate.

With enemies on all sides – enemies new and old alike – Lisbeth has no choice but to reach out to the one person that she knows she can trust. But reconnecting with Mikael Blomkvist carries risks of its own … and there’s no telling just how high a price will ultimately need to be paid.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is the kind of movie that struggles to get out of its own way. Far from the moody noir of the Swedish trilogy or the edgy darkness of Fincher’s effort, this movie feels like a standard action-driven techno-thriller that just happens to be set in Sweden and feature characters that share names and superficial characteristics with those that came before. It is loud and empty, a story that rushes to get to nowhere in particular.

There are certain aesthetic expectations that come with tackling this particular character. Unfortunately, director Fede Alvarez (who also co-wrote the screenplay with two others) doesn’t deliver on those expectations. Oh, the trappings are there – the industrial chic settings, the rundown Euro-goth mansions, the motorcycle shots (SO MANY MOTORCYCLE SHOTS) – but they never cohere into anything. The whole thing feels like someone working from a playbook that they don’t fully understand.

(And while it’s basically standard operating procedure in Hollywood to greatly exaggerate the capabilities of computers, it has been a while since we’ve seen an ostensibly present-day film grant such omnipotence to technology. Seriously – computers and other tech might as well be straight-up magic as far as this movie is concerned.)

None of this is Claire Foy’s fault, by the way. Finding ways to allow an audience to empathize with such a strangely-assembled cipher couldn’t have been easy, but she manages to drink deep from what is from all appearances a dry well. She is an incredible talent who deserves far better than what this movie gives her. Hell, Lisbeth Salander deserves far more than this movie gives her. The rest of the cast is mostly meh, although Stanfield does some good work and Merchant is solid in his handful of scenes. Mostly, though, the cast is packed with forgettability.

“The Girl in the Spider’s Web” is your standard average-ish action movie that suffers greatly due to its connection to far superior fare. It’s a shame to think that this might mark the end of Lisbeth Salander’s cinematic adventures (at least here in the U.S.), but if this is indicative of what we’re going to get, maybe it’s for the best.

[2 out of 5]

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