The Girl in the Spider's Web review: Lisbeth Salander deserves better

This time around, Claire Foy plays the iconic Swedish heroine, but Lisbeth Salander's new chapter isn't the stark, intelligent world we're used to.

Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
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  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
3 min read
Sony Pictures

Since 2009, three actresses have played Lisbeth Salander, Sweden's iconic hacker heroine sporting a dragon tattoo and a mohawk. The latest is Claire Foy, a Golden Globe winner for portraying Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown. The new movie and Netflix show are nowhere near the same world, yet Foy proves she's up for the motorcycle-riding, scarred-deep-down hero who can hack just about anything.

Unfortunately, her stark, intelligent world is now a silly Bond-esque action movie.

The Girl in the Spider's Web is the fifth Salander movie including the three Swedish TV movies starring Noomi Rapace and David Fincher's 2011 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo that shot Rooney Mara to Oscar nom stardom. It's based on the fourth novel in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series, written by David Lagercrantz after Larsson's death. It opened Thursday in Australia and Friday in the US and crawls into UK theatres Nov. 21. 

Unlike the careful plotting of the previous movies, director Fede Alvarez goes for big explosions, fast car chases and plots involving -- sigh -- nuclear warhead codes. With a hacker character like Salander, the emphasis on tech runs throughout, but it's tech that works like magic. Salander can hack a car mid-chase and leaves personalised rude finger-flipping calling cards. She's snarky and fun, but this isn't the Salander we knew.


Claire Foy as "superhacker" Lisbeth Salander.

Sony Pictures

A rainy Stockholm shrouds Salander as we follow her through familiar territory, hanging out in Sweden's underground club scene, having casual relationships with women and keeping a pet lizard. That's all while she's not moonlighting as a kind of Batwoman, heavy eye makeup and wing imagery to boot, targeting women-abusing men and pillaging their vast bank accounts.

She's enlisted by Stephen Merchant playing it straight as an ex-US agent whose managed to help give the US access to the world's nuclear warheads. Salander's task is to save the day by downloading the encrypted program known as Firefall -- and making sure no one unencrypts it.


A look at Salander without the makeup.

Sony Pictures

Cue bad guys known as The Spiders going after her and Swedish government officials who like to banter with their detainees using Swedish tour guide books. Unveil the baddies with white eyebrows and face masks, an uneasy combination of pantomime, action thriller and weighty themes -- themes of sexual abuse and torture which are brought up, then largely left alone.

There's an intriguing aspect in Salander's personal connection to the baddies, which reveals something about her past and why she's the way she is. But that quickly falls by the wayside so Salander can easily outwit her opponents using a combination of tech magic and lucky coincidence.


Journalist Mikael Blonkvist played by Sverrir Gudnason.

Sony Pictures

Salander's journalist more-than-friend Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) shows up, but it's more of a cameo appearance, unlike his leading role in the books and previous movies. He provides help in tracking targets and solving clues, but with Salander's skills, he seems superfluous -- there like Salander's mohawk, a part of who she is.

Their relationship is barely explored, and Blomkvist is now a meeker version of the character who hasn't written anything for three years and who doesn't seem to know how to delete Word documents. The consistencies in the Girl Who ... world don't exist.

A smart-alec secret agent from the US, played by Lakeith Stanfield, adds another player to the mix. He and Salander share one of the funnier moments of the movie, up there with Salander stealing a black Batmobile-esque Lamborghini for the heck of it, and Swedish secret service deputy director Gabriella Grane (Synnøve Macody Lund) saying, "Arrest him. Send him back to Disneyland."

If The Girl in the Spider's Web brings anything to the table, it's another look into Salander's past. But it's handled loosely, with a lighter, more palatable tone. This isn't a standalone entry, but it's trying to be, reiterating Salander's distinct character traits and potentially setting her up as a hacker sleuth for hire, long opening sequence a la James Bond included.

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