Fede Álvarez’s feature-length directorial debut, the 2013 remake of The Evil Dead, was a visceral achievement, unflinching in its commitment to grisly body horror. Throughout, bodies are torn astoundingly asunder, with blood spilling and spraying in almost gleeful torrents. The director displays an assured and accomplished understanding of space, and his hyperbolic violence, always played seriously, has a consistent sense of physical and internal logic. His follow up, Don’t Breathe, furthered his fascination with the horrors that hide in confined, hermetic spaces. Álvarez was, after two films, one of the most interesting genre filmmakers working today.
With The Girl in the Spider’s Web, a soft reboot of the American-produced Millennium series and indirect sequel to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Álvarez betrays his own talents and delivers a listless imitation of David Fincher’s signature style. The claustrophobia and deft craftsmanship of Evil Dead and Don’t Breathe is replaced by a slick but lifeless aesthetic that’s accompanied by a thudding score that could have been culled from any 1990s thriller made in the wake of Fincher’s Se7en. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo possesses a daring and an empathy rarely found in studio thrillers, and Álvarez, hampered by an inane screenplay and denied the kind of cast that made Fincher’s characters so compelling, can’t conjure up anything even close to his predecessor’s caustic sense of mystery and dread.
Cyber hacker superhero and angel of vengeance Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy, taking over from Rooney Mara) is tasked with stealing a comically dangerous computer program, which grants its user control of virtually any missile systems in the world, or some such nonsense. But a group of nefarious terrorists pilfer the program and blow up Lisbeth’s home, forcing her to turn, yet again, to her only friend, the crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason, boasting none of Daniel Craig’s stoical charisma), and soon the pair become enmeshed in a global web of lies and corruption.
Throughout The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher impressionistically uses snow to elicit a feeling of sorrow, as in closeups of Lisbeth that convey tenderness, betrayal, and ire. Fincher rarely makes a move without considering how it sets up subsequent ones. By contrast, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is hampered by uncertainty and nonsensicality from its opening scene, which apes Fincher’s penchant for slow forward pushes and rack-focus. Two young girls set up a chess board in a room atmospherically bathed in gauzy light. The audience is then offered a stylish close-up of a spider sidling along a strand of web strung between two pawns. It’s a shot of purely aesthetic intentions, devoid of any internal or external logic.
Álvarez’s film suffers from a compulsion to be capital-C cool, and all of its ostensibly stylish shots are untethered to any semblance of a sustained reality. At one point, Lisbeth goes to a club, wading into the quavering sea of dancing bodies, and climbs into the most beautiful windowsill imaginable, a glowing orb in a darkened room, against which she becomes a parabolic silhouette with whorls of smoking coming from her cigarette. Why is no one in this chockablock club standing in front of the window? It’s as if they’re all aware that they need to leave enough room for the camera to pull back and wallow in Lisbeth’s spectacular coolness once she arrives on the scene.
Later, Blomkvist meets up with a man who has a detachable face, akin to Javier Bardem’s in Skyfall but much stupider. The man peels off his face, revealing a gaping void where the mechanical nose and upper teeth were. One feels Álvarez getting giddy behind the camera, happy to revolt his audience, but the moment is too familiar for it to linger. That, in essence, is the problem with the film as a whole: From its aping of Fincher’s style to its purloining of clichés from so many James Bond films and action thrillers before it, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is simply chasing the ghosts of other films.