Movie Reviews: The Girl in the Spider's Web and Overlord
Lizbeth Salander is back, and Claire Foy's got her. Also: Nazi zombies.
The Girl in the Spider's Web—the second English-language movie adaptation of a novel from the Dragon Tattoo series begun by the late Stieg Larsson—feels second-hand in every way. The main characters are the same, but the director is new, the lead actress is new, the rest of the cast is new, and the book on which the film is based wasn't written by Larsson. (It's the work of estate-approved Swedish author David Lagercrantz, and like Larsson's books it was a transatlantic bestseller.)
Everything about this project is awkward. In 2011, two years after Swedish film versions of Larsson's first three novels had made Noomi Rapace an international star, Sony released David Fincher's adaptation of the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, starring Rooney Mara as the troubled butt-kicker Lisbeth Salander. The movie was a worldwide hit, but plans to follow it with sequels based on Larsson's second and third books (written before the author died in 2004) fizzled out. So Sony decided to go totally clean-slate and reboot the series with a movie version of the non-Larsson fourth novel, The Girl in the Spider's Web, presenting it as—what the hey—a direct sequel to the Fincher film.
New director Fede Alvarez is more of an international man of action than one might have expected from his previous features, the blind-man-in-a-dark-house suspense flick Don't Breathe and the 2013 Evil Dead remake. However, his facility is largely in the overworked area of car crashes and explosions (he has mastered the art of rolling a big ball of fire down a corridor). Also familiar is the insistently thrillery score by Roque Baños, which in no way recalls the lustrous work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross in the Fincher film.
The movie's central problem is its star, Claire Foy (The Crown, First Man). Unlike Rooney Mara, who played Lizbeth Salander as an avenging goth—an icy, enraged survivor of prolonged sexual abuse—Foy's take on the character suggests not rage, but shell shock. Even in the movie's best scene—the opening confrontation between Salander and a man she knows to be a serial assaulter of women—Foy is remote and murmurous. To be fair, she's surely following the director's lead, hoping he'll make everything work in the edit. But Alvarez hasn't quite done that. And the script that he co-wrote with Jay Basu and Steven Knight diminishes the rest of Larsson's characters as well, especially Salander's ally, the ace investigative reporter Mikael Blomkvist, played in the Fincher movie, with full stubbly sex appeal, by Daniel Craig, but played here, in a cloud of vanilla irrelevance, by Swedish actor Sverrir Gudnason.
We expect the stories in movies like this to be infernally complicated, and this one doesn't disappoint. After an introductory survey of Salander's neck tattoo and face piercings, and an eyeblink's worth of lesbian bedroom dalliance (with no sex), we dig right in. Salander is contacted by a Swedish computer scientist named Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant) who has created a program called Firefall, which can do all kinds of blah-blah-blah bad things, mainly of a nuclear nature. Balder is ashamed to admit that he has given this program to the war-pig Americans, and that it now resides in the deepest computer lair of the National Security Agency. He wants legendary hacker Salander to break into the NSA network and extract the Firefall program and, um…something or other.
The extraction is no problem, of course. But as soon as Salander intrudes into the NSA's Washington-based domain, an alarm goes off (who would've expected that?) and a security honcho named Needham (Lakeith Stanfield) quickly traces the intruder to Stockholm. In fact, right to the big dark half-wrecked industrial space that Salander calls home. (Everybody in this movie seems to live in some sort of grim, gray warehouse. It's like a lifestyle disease.) Needham lights out for Sweden, and before you know it he's parked outside the headquarters of the Swedish Security Service, in a rental car whose trunk is filled with heavy weaponry. (This could surely happen in some alternate, off-planet Sweden of which we're so far unaware.)
Meanwhile, Salander has attracted the malevolent attention of a Russian crime syndicate called the Spiders (cue spidery tattoos—including one slyly situated on a guy's forehead). The Spiders naturally want Balder's program for their own alarming purposes. As it happens, Salander has an unhappy history with this outfit—which is now being led by her sister Camilla (Sylvia Hoeks, of Blade Runner 2049), a psychopathic clothes horse. I liked Camilla—she's twisted and freaky and her superpower is running through snowy woods in scarlet high heels. I also liked the Russki hood who's had his nose whacked off. ("This is what you get when you try to fuck with the Spiders," he says, in a philosophical final moment.)
Foy's Salander moves through all of this hubbub like a woman with a mild concussion. For a while she's accompanied by Frans Balder's suddenly orphaned son, August (Christopher Convery), who turns out to have a key role to play. And from time to time director Alvarez will dispatch her on some mission improbable—like the face-off on a bridge in which one of the hoods is blasting away at Salander with his machine gun and she nevertheless decides to run over to a nearby ladder and climb way up it—as machine-gun guy continues blasting away—to access some sort of obscure control thingy that lifts the bridge and allows her to escape. She knows all kinds of stuff like this!
Bottom line: This is an action movie that's short on charisma and bereft of invention, but slickly made and not without a certain (Fincher-adjacent) style. Some fans of Salander—a uniquely motivated action character—might be unhappy to see her being refashioned into a straight-ahead Bourne figure here. And it's unfortunate that scowling Rooney Mara of the death-ray eyes is no longer playing her, and that Daniel Craig (or the original Blomkvist in the Swedish films, Michael Nyqvist) is no longer on hand to rub a little warmth into her bleak tale. These things are missed. And they won't be coming back.
Overlord is a J.J. Abrams production that's sneaking into multiplexes disguised as a cheap genre-mashup—a fake-out that won't last long. The picture is actually a combination war movie and monster flick, and it's surprisingly faithful to both of those cinematic traditions. There's a lot of handsomely mounted World War II battle action in the beginning, where we see a plane full of American soldiers sustaining heavy ack-ack damage in the runup to "Operation Overlord"—the D-Day invasion intended to drive the Nazis out of France. And later there are some terrifically disgusting gore effects as a group of GIs infiltrates a French village that's being used by the Germans to conduct inhuman experiments aimed at making their Thousand Year Reich a hideous reality.
The GIs are an amusingly assembled throwback to old-time Hollywood war squadrons: there's one wisecracking urban weisenheimer, one inoffensive ethnic stereotype ("Rosenberg"), and one bookish guy who's obviously not cut out for combat. There's also a battle-hardened corporal named Ford (Wyatt Russell, of Lodge 49) and—although the U.S. Army was still racially segregated in 1944—a black private named Boyce (Jovan Adepo, of Fences).
Ford and Boyce and their team have been assigned to take out a signal transmitter the Germans have installed at the top of an old village church. (It's a mark of the considerable skill invested in this movie that the village, with its perfectly replicated street cobbles, stone houses and warm woody interiors, has a ravishing authenticity that could make you want to move right into it.) After taking shelter with the family of a young village woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), the soldiers find themselves dodging an arrogant Nazi officer named Wafner (Pilou Asbæk, Game of Thrones). Then Boyce sneaks into a secret laboratory where a verminous medico called Dr. Schmidt (Erich Redman) is conducting really gruesome experiments to come up with a serum that can raise the dead and create life everlasting. Things start getting icky when we see our first moaning, blood-filled body bag hanging from a ceiling. Then there's a wild, face-ripping confrontation with the furious Wafner, who has sampled some untested serum on his own. And then things get really out of hand.
Adepo does an appealing impression of another stereotype – the too-good man in an evil world – without actually becoming a stereotype. And Russell so strongly recalls his badass dad, Kurt Russell, that you hope he'll start making many more genre movies right away. This one's a good beginning.