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Capable as Bourne, Cool as Bond, Clever as Batman

The Girl In The Spider's Web, which was released only in October 2018, has already been consigned to the dustbin of cinematic history, as yet another Box Office flop, with, to add insult to injury (as perhaps befits the plot), no audience or critical love, either.  On Metacritic it scores 43; On IMDB, 6.1; on Rotten Tomatoes, a not very fresh 41% - it stinks, all the metrics seem to warn.

The film, which had a medium-sized budget of $43 million USD, has so far only earned back under around $34 million domestic and international; with, however, the home viewing sales to come; if lucky, and there is no reason to expect much luck here, it may eventually break even. Everyone was startled at how badly the film was received, given it stars Claire Foy, a current darling for her role as The Queen on telly; and is directed by Fede Alvarez, whose previous English films, The Evil Dead and Don't Breathe are considered, if not modern classics, then near-perfect nasty cult-style horror pics.

I've now had a chance to finally see the film, and I am somewhat peeved at the injustice of the critical drubbing it took; I can't do much to generate a wider audience, but this post is a humble revaluation. At the heart of the attacks on the film is a sexism, abetted by a misreading of the book's genre(s). A perfect example is Variety's review which claims the film neutered the edgier aspects of the series; indeed, the general line of argument can be stated simply: a subversive, feminist, dark story has been made glossy, and rebooted as a James Bond/Bourne/Batman potential tentpole project, ironing out the shadows and ambiguity and bisexuality of the heroine.

That's a clear reason to hate a film - when it appears to be a bland commercial sell-out. But it isn't true, factually, when this film is examined. Which is problematic.

First, it is a Hollywood film, and is therefore glossier than the foreign-language earlier films; but as beautifully shot as Fincher's solo foray into an earlier reboot, which this film follows. And the character of Lisbeth Salander, who seems to love salamanders and lizards, and punishes men who hate and hurt women, is here shown to drive a mean motorbike, and use a gun. She also has a genius-level ability to contrive schemes and hack her way into most impregnable things. And be rich enough to own several cool lairs. To suggest that a cool, smart, capable, and kick-ass woman who rights wrongs and punishes bad guys is simply a copycat of Bond/Bourne/Batman is simply sexist nonsense - Salander is her own woman. She is merely very good at what she does.

But on to the idea that anything here has been neutered. Neutered? If so, I'd hate to see the film with all its bits intact. This is by far the most horrific, sexually disturbing, and violent of any of the films. It does not, despite many critics saying so, mute Salander's lesbian love affairs - indeed a key few scenes involve her lover, a woman who hangs out in an underground club; nor is the theme of hateful men violating women removed - the central plot (spoilers ahead) is precisely about child sex abuse, at the hands of a sadistic father figure. Nor is Salander's grungy lifestyle denied - she still has a tubby hacker friend with a few very funny scenes; and she lives in a bleak warehouse. As for the sexual depravity of the earlier films, the key torture device in this film derives its power from being an especially obscure and bizarre form of fetish gear, mainly used by BDSM practitioners into breath play - hardly a vanilla script move.

In truth, Salander was, from Book Two in the series, rich enough to own lairs (the two in this film do not look that expensive); she was always a computer genius; she always rode a motorcycle; she was always bisexual; and she always fought the sort of colourful weird villains Dan Brown throws at people. She is a character from a best-selling thriller series, that was never less than a clever feminist inversion of the Fleming formula. Therefore, none of the plot elements, or character points are off-track. There is clearly a residual memory of a downbeat, weak and ineffective Lisbeth, that critics wanted to see, but instead they are offered a haunted, tormented, but ultimately handy woman, who, yes, is in love, and has a bad childhood.

From what I can read, the reviews hated the nuclear weapons sub-plot; in actual fact, the film is barely about nuclear weapons - and less so than the critically-loved Mission Impossible from this year; the final villain is not motivated by money or world domination, but revenge; and the nihilism represented by the Spiders, a cruel and sinister crime syndicate, cannot be simplified into a nukes for money thriller. There is never a countdown, never extortion, never an explosion - the nukes are a big red-herring. To use the metaphor supplied, it's a web of intrigue, to draw the fly (Lisbeth) in.

It's true she saves a savant-child, and fights some cool battles (one especially bizarre fight occurs against foes dressed in fetishy gasmasks); but the critically-loved Logan (as well as featuring Merchant also) shared the save-the-kid plot; and the infamous MacGuffin here is no more silly than the Maltese Falcon or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

Instead of being a hot mess, this is a well-executed action thriller, featuring a strong and intriguing woman, exploring daring and taboo topics like child sex and perversion, shot and set in a lesser-seen European location. It has several set pieces that are genuinely thrilling and scary; and one, using ice, that is especially impressive.

Surely, in time, this will be reconsidered as a good, if not perfect, B-movie, and a worthy successor to Fincher's equally polished one. As a home cinema experience, it is a definite popcorn treat, the sort of trashy-fun movie well worth staying in for on a cold gloomy night.


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