Article Thumbnail

‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ Is All Beauty and No Bite (Or Anything Else for That Matter)

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Lisbeth Salander thriller

Last year when I saw Blade Runner 2049, I thought it was one of the most gorgeous films ever made. Struggling to put my euphoria into words, I described it as “a ravishing visual colossus.” (Who says I can’t write good blurb?) Kyle Buchanan, a writer for Vulture who’s now at The New York Timessummed up his experience a little differently in a since-deleted tweet:

For those not familiar with One Perfect Shot, the site and Twitter feed (part of Film School Rejects) pay tribute to incredible and/or beautiful shots from movies. Sure, they’re fun to look at, but there’s a fetishizing quality to One Perfect Shot, reducing incredible films to a handful of frame-worthy images that we can gawk over. Buchanan was mocking Blade Runner 2049 for turning that aesthetic into an entire movie, essentially accusing the filmmakers of stringing together striking pictures with nothing underneath them. I didn’t agree, but I got where he was coming from — and I’ve been on the lookout for that tendency ever since.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the newest film about Swedish goth cyber-hacker Lisbeth Salander, really does feel like One Perfect Shot: The Movie. For those who love the series, based on the Stieg Larsson novels, The Girl in the Spider’s Web will provide a fix of Nordic suspense with a bit of kink. But for anyone like me who struggles to care about these characters, your big takeaway may be, “Wow, this movie sure is pretty.” In fact, it’s distractingly pretty. Just about every image in The Girl in the Spider’s Web is meant to wow you. And I suppose, on that level, the film succeeds. It’ll look great on One Perfect Shot. But it’s barely a movie.

Here, briefly, is what I remember of the film’s plot: After kicking an abusive man’s ass in his stunning, low-lit apartment, Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is recruited by Frans (Stephen Merchant), a former NSA employee, to retrieve a dangerous weapons program. Once she steals it, she’s targeted by another NSA agent, Edwin (Lakeith Stanfield), who works in the sleekest, coolest cubicle farm in human history. Edwin tries to find Lisbeth, leading to scenes involving awesome-looking airports, badass bedrooms, a house in flames and a motorcycle chase across a frozen lake under immaculately gloomy skies. We also discover some of Lisbeth’s backstory, learning that she grew up in the most sleet-gray mansion ever — oh, and that she and her sister were sexually abused by their father. That last part’s left a little vague, but I’m sure about the mansion.

For all the talk of streaming services and prestige television outclassing movies, Hollywood is doing really well commercially, enjoying one of its best summers ever and recently celebrating the greatest October box office in film history. But the one area where mainstream films really suffer in comparison to groundbreaking TV series is in their storytelling. A Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul or The Haunting of Hill House takes more narrative risks than your typical studio blockbuster. But because films are “meant” to be seen on the big screen, their advantage, at least in theory, is their cinematic quality. In other words, they look pretty. Sure, lots of TV series are visually impressive, too, but you’re watching them at home on a television — ideally, a theater’s sharp projection and massive screen top that.

A film like The Girl in the Spider’s Web benefits enormously from that arrangement. In the theater, the movie suggests a dark, somber sophistication thanks entirely to its visual design. Directed by Fede Álvarez, The Girl in the Spider’s Web is utterly conventional narratively — it’s basically a James Bond movie — but its look keeps suggesting there’s more going on. Why? Because we’re tricked into thinking that complicated lighting schemes and fancy camera moves equal an intricate story. After all, if the visuals are this accomplished…

There’s something sorta inane about our fascination with cool images. For one thing, they’re extremely faddish. Right now, for instance, low-lighting and contrast-y shots are in vogue. Filmmakers can’t seem to get enough grey, either. Also, glass and minimalism are really big. It’s all about crafting a feeling of alienation or anxiety, which is a crucial currency for something like The Girl in the Spider’s Web that wants to be moody above all else. Really, the new film is just aping David Fincher, who directed 2011’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with his usual icy crispness. Fincher is a one-perfect-shot king, but at least he has his own aesthetic. Álvarez is just ripping off another filmmaker’s style.

I don’t mean to slag One Perfect Shot. I enjoy scrolling through its Twitter feed, and like a lot of people, I pick my header photo or Facebook cover based on an image from a film I think is really cool. We choose such images because we want to associate ourselves with powerful, stunning or evocative scenes — just like a reproduction of a Vincent van Gogh or Jackson Pollack on our wall is meant to suggest that we “get” that particular artist.

But the cliché that a picture is worth a thousand words doesn’t quite capture the allure of a perfect image. A striking visual communicates something that’s beyond words or literal meaning, embedding its ineffable essence within us. The best images on One Perfect Shot aren’t great simply because they’re beautiful — it’s because they’re taken from movies that mean something to us. We see the shot, and then we think back to a pivotal moment, or a feeling, or a certain scene’s dramatic reveal. These shots trigger an emotional association that was already there. The Girl in the Spider’s Web is a film full of cool/awesome/rad/pretty shots, but because they’re free of any associations, they just sit there on the screen, devoid of meaning.

Here are three other takeaways from The Girl in the Spider’s Web.

#1. David Fincher’s ‘Dragon Tattoo’ still has one of the best opening-credit sequences ever.

Outside of a James Bond movie, it’s hard to get excited about most films’ opening credits. But one of the exceptions in recent years was Fincher’s American remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. In case you’ve forgotten — or if you just want to relive the jolt of seeing these credits — here they are:

Around the film’s release, Fincher explained what inspired this sequence’s intensity. “I think title sequences are opportunities to set the stage or to get people thinking in different terms than whatever it is that they understand the movie to be,” he said in late 2011. “You know, oftentimes the movies are marketed poorly … so oftentimes title sequencing can help sort of reorient the thinking. And I liked the idea of this sort of primordial sort of tar or ooze, and I liked the idea that it was her nightmare.”

But how was the sequence put together? Wired had a fun feature where they talked to Blur Studio, a production house that does, among other things, visual effects. Blur and Fincher decided upon specific images and moments from Lisbeth Salander’s story that would be incorporated into the opening credits. I’ll now hand it over to Wired so that they can explain the process in their tech-speak…

Blur ended up with 26 moments approved by Fincher, then composed them into 252 shots of 24 frames or fewer. Each piece was created electronically using 3ds Max, RealFlow (for the oily goo), Softimage and other software, as well as 3-D scans of principal actors Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig (to get their likenesses right).

These astounding credits are capped by Karen O and Trent Reznor’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” That was Fincher’s idea, which Reznor wasn’t down with initially. “What I’ve learned from him is often he doesn’t tell you the whole story,” Reznor once said about the director. “Like, he suggested ‘Immigrant Song’: ‘Trent, how would you feel about an aggressive cover of Led Zeppelin‘s ‘Immigrant Song,’ maybe with, I dunno, Karen O wailing over it?’ Now, if you asked me how I’d feel about doing that for Nine Inch Nails or a single for my career, it wouldn’t be the top choice. I like Zeppelin, I like that song and I really like Karen O, but that’s not particularly where I think my trajectory is headed. I’ve learned with him to say, ‘Um, let’s see.’”

It all worked out. I still remember being at a review screening for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and having my mind blown when the opening credits came on. I was totally thrown — as well as properly prepared for the dark, sexy film I was about to see.

By the way, The Girl in the Spider’s Web has a similar-ish opening credits sequence. Not surprisingly, it’s very mediocre.

#2. Welcome to the “soft reboot” era.

You’re probably familiar with terms like remake, sequel and reboot. But The Girl in the Spider’s Web is part of a relatively new Hollywood phenomenon. It’s basically a sequel to Fincher’s movie, but it features none of that film’s actors, writers or director. But at the same time, if you haven’t seen that movie, you’d basically be fine just watching this one on its own. So how do you describe it? Say hello to the soft reboot.

In the world of computers, a soft reboot is when you restart your laptop without turning off the power. It’s not as dramatic as the “hard reboot” where you, say, hold down the power button to force a reboot. With that in mind, a soft reboot of a film franchise is, as described by ScreenRant’s Chris Agar, “a movie that introduces a particular brand to a new generation of moviegoers, while still keeping the canon of previous films intact.” Some recent examples include Creed, Jurassic World and Jason Bourne — as opposed to, for instance, Casino Royale, which gave us a James Bond that wasn’t connected to previous installments. With a soft reboot, you want to mix things up a little, but not too much.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web epitomizes what can go wrong with a soft reboot. The movie essentially assumes that you have some working knowledge of Lisbeth Salander but that you’re not so invested in any previous iteration that you won’t be mad that the actors you remember aren’t in this one. The film’s only concern is trying to latch onto a discernible, popular cinematic personality so that it can be relevant to today’s audiences. As a result, this sequel is a little James Bond and a little Jason Bourne set in an oh-so-serious blockbuster landscape, a la The Dark Knight. (The Girl in the Spider’s Web is so craven in its pandering that it’s almost shocking that Lisbeth doesn’t have superpowers or hang out with the cast of Fast and the Furious.)

Soft reboots are just another way for studios to peddle their old wares, but without risking much in terms of vision or ambition. Based on how audiences largely rejected The Girl in the Spider’s Web this weekend, I doubt other producers will be jumping to try the same strategy.

#3. Lakeith Stanfield makes everything better.

In the five years since he launched onto the scene with Short Term 12, Lakeith Stanfield has become a compelling, quirky star. He brings a stoned, slowed-down vibe to his performances, whether it’s in Get Out, Atlanta or Sorry to Bother You, that seems to recalibrate everyone around him. Stanfield is one of those rare actors who forces others to acquiesce to his odd rhythms — he never seems to be acting, per se, and he constantly gives off the impression that he’s hanging out while a movie just so happens to be filming around him.

That’s why it’s weird to see him in a straightforward, uninspired Lisbeth Salander thriller. His very presence in The Girl in the Spider’s Web made me hopeful that the movie would be great, but Stanfield mostly looks lost — although his eyes seem to be cluing us in to the fact that we really shouldn’t be taking this nonsense seriously.

I imagine that Stanfield signed on for the paycheck and the rise in visibility it would bring him. But for me, the best part of his involvement with The Girl in the Spider’s Web is this exchange with ScreenRant from this summer where he talked about making the movie. And keep in mind, this is how the interview starts….

I assume he’s kidding. But it’s more fun to assume that he’s not.