The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an international best-selling trilogy that gave way to three hit Swedish movies, one Hollywood remake that netted a Best Actress nomination, and millions in worldwide revenue. The problem was that its author, Stieg Larsson, died of a heart attack in 2004, before the publication of any of the original novels. The property was too valuable to simply collect dust and thus a new author came aboard to tell further adventures of Lisbeth Salander, the pint-sized Gothic avenger. A new set of novels began being published in 2015, and after David Fincher’s 2011 version underperformed at the box-office, it seemed expected to reboot the franchise with a new big screen story that had yet to be adapted. In steps a new director, a new dragon-tattooed lady for The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Unfortunately, my fears have come true and the eventual reckoning has happened: they have made Lisbeth Salander boring.
Lisbeth (Claire Foy) is thrown into another criminal conspiracy with shadowy forces at play. A network of high-powered assassins, known as “spiders,” has stolen a dangerous technology that will allow the user control of nuclear arsenals. Lisbeth is hired to retrieve this tech, betrayed, and then on the run from Swedish authorities, professional killers, a dogged NSA operative (Laketih Stanfield), and the head of this cabal, Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks, Blade Runner 2049), her long lost sister Lisbeth left behind years ago.
In her first 2010 outing, Salander was presented as a complex, emotionally withdrawn figure, eminently capable but flawed, hurt, and looking to punish others from her fraught history with terrible men. Strip away all the Gothic trinkets and camouflage, her assertions of identity, and she’s still a deeply intriguing human being. However, even the latter Swedish films started veering in this more derivative direction. As I wrote presciently with the second Swedish Dragon Tattoo movie back in 2010: “We project the interest we felt for her from the first film to the Salander stand-in represented in the second film. She’s still a resourceful, loyal, and cavalier presence, but the plot corners her into being a creature of action. She becomes the fantasy bisexual ass-kicking protagonist that was merely hinted at previously. That sounds like a good thing, but trust me, it does the audience a disservice to box in such a fascinating character.” With Spider’s Web, Lisbeth Salander has become a Gothic Jason Bourne spy figure, and as anyone who has seen the Bourne movies can attest, he’s the most boring character in his own movies, which is why he needs to be kept constantly on the move and hunted. He’s only interesting when he’s getting out of jams, and Lisbeth is now sadly in that realm.
Lisbeth has been reduced to her most essential, and most superficial, characteristics, which also go for the film as a whole. The Dragon Tattoo series began as a twisty investigative procedural with a litany of suspects and dark secrets worth killing over. From there, the Swedish films turned Lisbeth into an indestructible Terminator capable of getting the drop on anyone and axe-fighting oversized men. The Swedish series began more grounded as a mystery/thriller and suddenly, and regrettably, transformed into a preposterous Hollywood-style action-thriller, following the edict of bigger being better. That same mentality has carried over past Larsson’s contributions, and now Lisbeth has become an action superhero and the series has become trashy fun, high-calorie junk food, a safe excursion to a seedy underbelly. The Girl in the Spider’s Web still provides a consistent degree of entertainment, but it’s not playing at a higher level, content to hand-wave away its story for cool chases and fights. It’s the kind of movie where, to escape an encroaching fireball, Lisbeth dives into a bathtub of water. It makes for a visually interesting shot but it’s pretty cliché 90s action movie stuff. Director Fede Alvarez has a slick handle with visuals and evidenced real talent at sustaining and developing tension with 2016’s Don’t Breathe. He has obvious visual talent. There are some engaging fights, like a close-quarter struggle in a bathroom, and some nifty chase scenes, like a motorcycle chase over a frozen lake. I would have liked even more action if Spider’s Web was going to brush aside narrative and moral complexity for stylish set pieces.
The story of The Girl in the Spider’s Web feels like a lukewarm repackaging of spy clichés, and the film does little to make any of it feel important or relevant. There’s a super powerful technology that everyone wants, which falls into the wrong hands, and now it’s about retrieving this device and saving the world. That’s like the plot of just about every James Bond movie. It’s a formula, but where Spider’s Web missteps are that it doesn’t add anything else to this staid foundation. There are scenes but it’s usually about this group going after this group, or this group now going after this group, and without wider relevance it becomes redundant plot placeholders, something meant to distract long enough to get our characters from Point A to Point B. With a mystery, there’s a natural momentum that builds as the case builds coherency and the investigation focuses the direction. With action thriller mode, Spider’s Web just has a bunch of guys that occasionally interact until the movie needs some of them dead. This model by itself can work but it requires concerted effort, and that just isn’t present here.
The most interesting aspect of Spider’s Web is the further examination on Salander’s troubled upbringing, this time introducing a sister that has been plotting vengeance. Salander is, first and foremost, the selling point of this franchise; she is, after all, the titular girl with that particular tattoo. She is what separates this from any other paperback thriller. The Swedish sequels opened up her past traumas with her Soviet-defected father. He was the Big Bad Man behind the scenes trying to institutionalize and neutralize her. While skirting into the above-stated dangerous territory, the Swedish sequels still knew that Lisbeth Salander’s complicated history was the real mystery the audience craved, and it set up a series of antagonists ready to be foiled for years-in-the-making payback. I don’t really know how the events of Spider’s Web gibe with the overall series. I had to look up whether the evil father in the opening was the same evil father in the other films (both are listed as Alexander Zalachenko, so I think so). But the established history has Lisbeth committed after trying to set dear old dad on fire to save her abused mother. I don’t see how any of that is likely if she escapes her father’s clutches as a pre-teen and is supposedly on the run. The secret Salander sister revelation also impacts little. She was the one left behind, whose continued abuse and degradation are strongly referenced. It doesn’t feel like Lisbeth harbors great guilt over leaving her sister behind. During their final face-to-face, Camilla actually poses a worthy question: “Why did the woman who hurts men who hurt women never come back and save her own abused sister?” Because this storyline is flagrantly underdeveloped, the evil sister angle is a cheap twist. There’s nothing to the Camilla character, so she serves as a symbol of shame, and yet the movie doesn’t seem to capitalize on this in the slightest, which is a puzzling disservice.
Foy (Netflix’s The Crown, First Man) is having a big year for herself but feels slightly miscast. She never really gets an opportunity to show off her range, which is a byproduct of the streamlined, reductionist screenplay emphasizing bare plot mechanics. She is missing the intensity or fire that we’ve seen in prior Salanders, breakout-star Noomi Rapace and the Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara. When Foy tries for glower you see the effort. She’s more grumpy than tortured, like maybe she skipped a meal. Even with the requisite piercings, tattoos, and black leather wardrobe, Foy seems a bit too clean-cut for the part. Personal admission: Foy with her sharp bangs, saucer-eyes, facial shape, and Gothic accessories, looks remarkably like an ex-girlfriend of mine from the early 2000s. That was something that kept sneaking into my mind throughout the film, which made the experience a tad stranger as if I was imagining an ex engaged in action heroics. Even excusing that personal connection, Foy ranks a distant third place for the Girls With.
The new Dragon Tattoo movie will likely also be its last. I can’t imagine fans getting too much pleasure out of a streamlined, underdeveloped spy thriller that sands away the edge and complexity of its characters for rote action movie chases. It’s not a bad movie and it does carry moments of excitement and entertainment, but it’s also become a standard Hollywood thriller, no different than a dozen other high-tech, junky hacker thrillers. The Girl in the Spider’s Web gets caught in its own formulaic web. If Lisbeth Salander has been transformed into a standard action hero, then we don’t deserve more adventures.
Nate’s Grade: C
Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.
What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.
Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.
I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.
As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.
First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.
Nate;s Grade: B-
Steven Soderbergh is a restlessly experimental filmmaker who enjoys adopting new technology to tell familiar stories. Unsane was shot entirely on an iPhone (7s, if you must know) but I’ll never know the reason other than to see if it could be done. Otherwise, Unsane is Soderbergh’s woman-in-peril Lifetime movie of the week. Claire Foy (Netflix’s The Crown) plays a harried woman on the edge that accidentally commits herself to an in-patient mental hospital. That’s the best part of the movie, the first twenty minutes, as she diligently tries to convince everyone she is not crazy and there has been some sort of mistake. From there she begins seeing images of her stalker (Joshua Leonard) from another city. Is she really crazy? Is he really there? Has he followed her and gotten a job at a mental hospital and been waiting his time anticipating she would commit herself to this exact facility? The film answers this question ridiculously early and finds the most boring yet also preposterous route to go with its pedantic thrills. There’s a good concept here with the idea of a person trying to navigate the Byzantine, bureaucratic system to prove their sanity from behind bars, but it’s so poorly developed as to feel like a promising TV episode stretched thin. There simply are not enough twists and turns to keep an audience consistently engaged. Soderbergh has played in the trashy B-movie realm before with 2013’s Side Effects to much better effect. There aren’t enough credible characters to grapple onto. Foy is enjoyably incensed and erratic and keeps your attention, though I think she studied at the Kate Winslet School of American Accents. Gorgeous looking movies have been shot on cell phones, like Sean Baker’s Tangerine. This movie looks like it was shot on someone’s phone while it was dying. It looks so ugly on the big screen, flat and over-saturated in lighting, and just unappealing. It’s deeply un-cinematic and Soderbergh has the skills to do better. Unsane is un-good.
Nate’s Grade: C-