Stieg Larsson's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" novels begin with the investigation of a murder and end with the modest metamorphosis of a character -- a tattooed, pierced, edgy twenty-something whose complex social disposition is hastily labeled either discordance or apathy. Some claim the book's pulpy thrills are responsible for the author's posthumous popularity, but, really, the events that unfold in the stories are more a means of exploring the nature of a misunderstood, gritty heroine, Lisbeth Salander, and how we observe her sexuality, her sanity, and the machinations of her twisted family. Similar to the novels, the Swedish film adaptations of the story attempt to strike a balance between the plot's two halves: twisted quasi-whodunits that paint government and corporate higher-ups in a negative light, while humanizing and exploring the nuance of a girl they demonize for her outward and inward appearance. In this particular take on the material, one side clearly dominates the other.
Larsson stumbled onto a fascinating character when he elaborated on Lisbeth in his musings, one who he himself clearly found fascinating based on his memories of a troubling childhood incident ... perhaps even obsessively so over her subversive temperament. He elaborated on his own curiosity under the appearance of a trilogy based on the magazine Millennium: a high-brow tabloid rag in Sweden helmed by Mikael Blomkvist, played here by Sweden's illustrious Michael Nyqvist, who occupies the other half of the "protagonist" label with Salander. The magazine offers a means, whether in-print or by association, for bringing harsh topics to the public eye -- corporate espionage and sabotage, sex trafficking, corruption in national security, and the institutionalization of patients who don't deserve it -- while providing a basis for Lisbeth's story arc to develop and mature over time. Larsson works parallels in that expound on how the big mysterious cases apply to her, and he generates clear intrigue by seeing how these things tie to her life, whether physically or thematically.
Once woefully-overlooked as a television and underused cinema performer, Noomi Rapace brings Lisbeth Salander to life. In combination with Larsson's writing, she brings a fresh perspective to the audience's perception of a punk girl, a body-art enthusiast, a hacker, and of bisexuality/pansexuality. In interviews, Rapace makes it known that she couldn't do justice to the myriad pictures that individual watchers have ascribed to the character in the minds through the books; instead, as a fan of the series herself, she brings the character to life through her own interpretation, and the result comes very, very close to obtaining a wide-sprawling take on Lisbeth that'd satisfy everyone. Her petite-yet-tough form gives the character an edge, one even sharper than exists in the book: she's fierce and not one to force in a corner, with an enigmatic streak and glimmers of softness that accentuate our curiosity. Rapace's skill as an actress quickly establishes her as a mystery, not just a screwed up member of society.
Her enigmatic appeal originates in Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where the audience experiences a clear partition in two sides of a murder investigation: inspection of the whodunit's twist and turns themselves, and the mental fabric of the person who plays a key part in eventually ciphering the data. Henrik Vanger (Sven-Bertil Taube), the patriarch of a wealthy family who builds their wealth in the financial districts that Millenium often investigates, hires recently-maligned magazine pioneer Blomkvist for a last-ditch effort in discovering the truth behind the disappearance of his troubled niece, Harriet. Blomkvist, diving head-first into the mystery, reveals a corrupt network of misogyny and Nazi ties, as well as a registry of clues that seem like they point to answers -- but it's not something even a skilled, inventive reporter with years of experience can elucidate. While he scurries about on the Vanger estate, we also witness the evolving life of Lisbeth, the troubled hacker/researcher who gathered background data on Blomkvist before he came under Henrik Vanger's employ. They'll converge; we know it, and the movie knows how to use that to its advantage.
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo rides a stark balance between the two halves, allowing Blomkvist to follow breadcrumbs through the snowy Swedish country while developments within Salander's chaotic life in Stockholm (especially around her legal guardianship) explode out of control and allow us to learn more about what's caused her to appear so emotionally bruised and socially standoffish. It's only once the two sides collide, and Salander and Blomkvist discover a catalyst when they lock eyes for the first time, that the story really takes shape; the mystery behind what happens to Harriet might generate faint curiosity on its own, but it's hard to really invest personal emotion into it until Lisbeth, a troubled entity like Harriet, gets her hands dirty with deciphering the evidence before her. That, and Rapace's cathartic realization of the character, becomes the bread-'n-butter behind why this adaptation telegraphs such a subversive, challenging punch. At that point, it becomes a personal journey instead of a whodunit, and director Oplev knows the chords to strike -- both thematically, and with Rapace's capability -- to elevate it.
A natural cascade downwards occurs in The Girl Who Played With Fire: at the end of the first installment, the mystery of the Vangar Corporation's deep, dark secret has been solved. That fuel has been tapped; what's left, however, is the mystery behind Lisbeth, and Larsson's enthrallment with the character allows him to follow her intrigue down the rabbit hole. Again, the story's structure is built around another case for Millenium to crack, this time about sex trafficking and how it pertains to heavy-hitters in Sweden's infrastructure. Once Lisbeth's name starts to correlate with some of the events that unfold in the investigation, and with a murder that occurs, the situation gets reframed with her involvement in mind. Blomkvist works diligently to find Lisbeth, who had disappeared at the end of the events in Dragon Tattoo; Lisbeth, who tries her damndest to not be found, finds it harder and harder to keep her distance when troubling elements of her past start to emerge in both Millenium's new subject and with her fraught relationship with her guardian.
In either cinematic iteration, new director Daniel Alfredson's take on The Girl Who Played With Fire is lacking some of the depth and intellect present in the book it's based on -- but that's natural, given the inherent nature of stripping down source material to the essentials. It does prove to be one of this film's weaknesses, however: learning more about Lisbeth's past, especially as they pertain to elements involving her family, becomes the driving force that we care about, while the other half of the story's sex-trafficking thrust only earns its power by relying on the audience's inherent disdain for misogyny and lurid dealings pertaining to it. The case itself, unfortunately, isn't all that interesting on a fundamental level, but again our dark, pierced heroine makes it compelling due to her complicated perception of it. Rapace stays on top of her game; she never falters, her lean disposition fluctuating between composure and disturbance in a masterstroke of acting presentation. And it's enough to simply watch how her iteration of Lisbeth ardently connects to the darker corners of Millenium's new case, and what she learns of her family's past. Don't get me wrong: the film's energetic and twisty enough, but straightforward and lacking mental engagement.
Still: admirable, enjoyable qualities can be found in The Girl Who Played With Fire and the elements outside of Lisbeth, but those screech to a halt in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. Without giving too much away, this film becomes all about the resolution to Lisbeth's struggles, both past and present, and how they pertain to a government cover-up involving her family's complex past. Unfortunately, they all take place in a situation that leaves Lisbeth unable to communicate with much of the outside world and unable to do most of her own sleuthing, leaving her to stagnate in her psychosis and condition while Blomkvist, Millenium, and other allies do the leg-work she normally can do. The problem? Much of the intrigue generated in this Dragon Tattoo franchise hinges on how Lisbeth becomes a quasi-Sherlock Holmes and watching her mental gears crank, and without it we're missing a lot of intrigue. In the novel, where one can explore and investigate internal thoughts, it's compelling; in cinematic form, it's disjointed, tedious, and manipulative. Without the Salander-Blomkvist chemistry, Hornet's Nest is certainly lacking something.
The Girl Who Kicks The Hornet's Nest slumps into a bland, exaggerated mix of courtroom theatrics and police/government procedural mechanics, and it's due in large part to Daniel Alfredson's overall direction not elevating the material beyond that of TV-caliber inventiveness. Exaggerated villains and 11th hour developments significantly mar the film's overall flow and pragmatism, rendering boisterous twists and turns that roll eyes more than they captivate, yet there's one constant variable that keeps it from descending below the line of mediocrity: the performances, namely that of Noomi Rapace. Even when she's operating within the confines of blunt, stereotypical character decisions and without the chemistry she shares with Michael Nyqvist, her wide eyes and embroiled poise accentuate the emotional complexity of every scene she's in, even one as simple as when she shows a doctor the tattoo we know emblazons her back. There's an electric atmosphere still present in the conclusion amid the labyrinth of mind-numbing conspiracy, and it's quite clear where it resides.
Evaluating the quality and determining an overall impression of the extended Dragon Tattoo Trilogy can be traced back to the original intentions of the content. Initially, only the first film of the series was constructed with a theatrical distribution in mind, while the second and third would follow as a continuation in the form of a broadcast miniseries. However, the box-office success of Dragon Tattoo seemed to have sparked YellowBird to reevaluate their model, which led to cut-down theatrical versions of Played With Fire and Hornet's Nest. The extended versions affirm this suspicion: the second and third films in the series benefit quite a bit from the added material, while the first's quality remains largely intact --- perhaps even weakened a little by the new material and the effect it has on pacing. The mild negative effects that this restructuring imparts on Dragon Tattoo are negligible in comparison to the positive benefits that it has on the material as a whole. Granted, this Extended Edition won't change the minds of those who didn't fancy them previously; all the same problems still exist. But there's a significant improvement, and will please those that did enjoy the adaptations.
Each film is structured into two ninety (90) minute segments, transforming the entire story arc into six even "parts". Breaking up the content in this fashion assists Played With Fire and Hornet's Nest off the bat -- not even so much with the additional exposition, even though several characters and actions receive much-needed emphasis, but with the pacing and rhythm of the events that occur. From a purely editorial standpoint, breaking the material into these TV-minded fragments allows for more concise framing of the story's "acts", clamping them off into more easily-digestible stretches that have coherent end points (instead of feeling like the pacing is running on empty roughly 3/4 the way through the film). New material has been added that: a) ties back to the book's machinations; and b) elevates many of the characters' overall appeal, richness, and dimension. And for the most part, it feels seamless; character interactions, especially those centered on Blomqvist's lover and Millenium's editor Erika Berger, comes across as quite pertinent and integral to the arc, if further side-stepping the original material's intentions. Again, this isn't a mind-changing alteration to the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy in the vein of extensive director's cuts or anything, but it does add a new, more palatable perspective to the conversation.
Music Box Films bring the "Extended Edition" of the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy to the Blu-ray spectrum in a classy-designed foldout package, holstered inside an embossed, elegant cardboard slipbox featuring a variation of the first film's international poster. Behind the hubs for each film disc, you'll find the poster designs used for each of the films in chronological, correlative order. The gnarly dragon tattoo design we've seen in association with the series adorns all the discs, which are solid black with the dragon logo in blood red. It's a relatively simple design arrangement, but an eye-grabbing one with a sleek attention to detail.
Video and Audio:
The biggest difference seen in the Dragon Tattoo Extended Edition in comparison to the individual releases will be with the first film, and it'll be quite obvious. Instead of sticking to the theatrical aspect ratio, Music Box have stayed true to the production's original TV intentions and opened the negative back up to a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (instead of the 2.35:1 ratio used for the previous Blu-ray release). For the first film, not-so-arguably the most visually-polished, this actually offers a few unique opportunities to focus on more material in the frame to heighten atmosphere: taller glimpses of Stockholm, a wider focus on the snow-covered Vanger estate, more thorough framing of characters' bodies mid-conversation, and other obvious notes. Matched with the rich, gritty aesthetic achieved in the first film, it's a fresh and adept high-definition presentation. Fine detail in depth-of-field shifting appears clear and robust, shadows are dark without being overbearing, and the grainy texture of the production's intentions, while still remaining somewhat overly intrusive from a digital standpoint, are pleasing to the eye from a taller perspective and fitting with the production's intentions.
In general, considering that each film consists of three hours of content crammed into AVC files onto each disc, the Dragon Tattoo trilogy looks pretty darn sound -- close to, if not of the same caliber, as the individual theatrical-release discs. They're not great examples of the medium, mind you; you'll find instances of intense grain that stretches beyond the intentions of the cinematography's intentions, as well as a certain haziness and out-of-focus flatness in terms of detail. However, you rarely feel like you're not watching material that's in high-definition, from gradation in skin tones and darker contrast elements to the detailed retained during brisk camera movement. Played With Fire and Hornet's Nest aren't as dynamic as Dragon Tattoo in terms of richness of contrast and inventiveness of depth-of-field, so they're incrementally less-interesting HD experiences; however, scenes involving Lisbeth's memories (in slow-motion), rushes through wooded areas, amber lighting amid industrial areas, and the staleness of a hospital room showcase some elegance in the arena. It's all very pleasing and does justice to the filmmakers' intents, though not anything worth flocking to in terms of demo-worthy material.
One of the biggest drawbacks to Music Box's previous Blu-ray releases was the lack of high-definition sound options in their native Swedish language -- only in English. Well, they've fixed that discrepancy by making Swedish DTS HD Master Audio options available for all three films. Will you hear a noticeable difference? Yes. Is it a drastic difference? No. The key elements to consider here are balance and threshold: dialogue responds with more weight as it interacts with the environment, ambient sound elements stretch out across the soundstage with further elegance, and a few aggressive effects test the lower- and higher-frequency shelves. In terms of a difference among the three, the comments essentially apply to all three films; they're all dialogue-based with emphasis on score and only pertinent sound effects, and they're all clear and exist in the space of the aural design to the production's aims. Equally strong English Master Audio tracks also accompany the discs, along with exceedingly well-translated English subtitles.
Making-Of Documentary (48:59, SD):
Starting from the beginning and expounding on the book's impact on readers and Sweden in general, this matter-of-fact documentary at first elaborates on Larsson's historical background, his untimely demise, and the popularity generated by its phenomenon. There are some slick points that caught my attention in a way that can't really be done elsewhere, such as seeing many different versions of the Dragon Tattoo cover in several languages all in one place, and learning about the "Larsson tour" in Stockholm and how it jumps to locations used in novel. I also appreciated the focus on Larsson's battle with neo-Nazi condemnation, even though the stock footage of a modern-era Nazi Party meeting point seemed a little heavy-handed. When it shifts towards Noomi Rapace's history and involvement, my ears immediately perked up: she shares her impressions on the character in general, her fan-driven fascination with the books, and how she applies both to her realization of the character. In general, we're working with nearly fifty minutes of informational content, but it's very low-energy, a bit exaggerated in its scripting, and more of a matter-of-fact introduction to the series and movies than anything else.
In term of in-depth content, the Interviews pick up the slack where the making-of doc avoids. One involving Noomi Rapace (19:36, SD) appears casual in tempo, but it's also highly insightful. She speaks in her native language while getting made up for scene on, I believe, the Hornet's Nest set. She discusses becoming more masculine, and Lisbeth's complex relationship with her body. Another one involving Michael Nyqvist (13:06, SD) also finds him in the makeup chair, which also provides another insightful interview about personal impressions and the casting process. These aren't fluffy interviews; they're hard-hitting, in-depth, and worth the time, something that carries over into the general Cast/Crew (13:59) interview portion as well.
Also included is snippet from a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of The Girl Who Played with Fire: Niedermanin vs. Roberto (9:43) It's pretty much what you'd expect from an off-stage, fly-on-the-wall perspective of what's going on during a fight sequence in the film. We've also got section for Posters and Trailers, which include teasers for Dragon Tattoo and Hornets's Nest and full-blown trailers for all three films -- all in full HD. Selecting the "Play All" function here does ratchet through them all in chronological order, not in the descending order that the menu implies.
There's a fascinating character at the heart of Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, also known as the Millenium Trilogy, one that should at least mildly alter the perception one has of an androgynous, pierced-'n-tatted, withdrawn woman. Stieg Larsson's books themselves are merely polished, mildly innovative detective/procedural thriller stories with a firm grasp on their conventions, but they're elevated by Lisbeth Salander's presence and the extent in which their themes and twisted thrills wrap around her disposition. The Swedish film trilogy captures the character examination portion of the equation quite well; combining Noomi Rapace with generally well-adapted text (aside from a few character divergences and rewrites) renders a compelling cinematic exploration of the character, one similar in tone and impact to that in Larsson's text. The films aren't perfect in terms of their effectiveness as procedural thrillers or dramatic powerhouses, but the elements that they do get right elevate the content to something noteworthy.
That especially goes for this Extended Edition of the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, which shifts the focus from a film structure to a six-part, naturally-flowing miniseries arrangement. Those unimpressed with the films beforehand won't have their opinions changed completely by this Blu-ray presentation, which sports strong-enough audiovisual properties given disc arrangement and a handful of fine special features; however, fans will want to seek this out, and those who found things to like in the theatrical films will want to revisit for the new content and pacing improvements in this reframed version. Recommended.