The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
The final entry in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy confirms the wisdom of the original plan to present the second and third films as a TV miniseries (which is how they were written and shot). On their own terms, neither film is satisfying. The Girl Who Played With Fire is two hours of massive build-up that’s barely resolved, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest feels like a retread of ground already covered. But as four consecutive nights of television (or a double feature), they’re thoroughly satisfying. We spend the first half of the story eagerly anticipating the moment when Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist will reconnect. Then we have the satisfaction of watching them work together once again toward the same goal, even though they rarely share the screen. And in Hornet’s Nest, all of the bad guys are at long last forced into the light of day.
It’s unfortunate, though, that Music Box continues to charge a premium price for an inferior product. Even though Hornet’s Nest runs 18 minutes longer than Fire and presents similar compression issues, Music Box still refuses to use a BD-50. In addition to sacrificing lossless audio, this has once again reduced image quality. See the Video section for further discussion.
Double-dip alert: On February 22, 2011, Music Box will release The Stieg Larsson Trilogy, a box set of the three previously released films, plus an additional disc with new extras.
Studio: Music Box Films Home Entertainment
Film Length: 147 minutes*
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: Swedish DD 5.1; English DD 5.1
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 27, 2009 (Sweden); Oct. 29, 2010 (U.S.)
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 25, 2011
*The disc jacket mistakenly lists “2 Hrs. 9 Mins.”, which is the running time of The Girl Who Played With Fire. This running time is taken directly from the disc.
Familiarity with Fire and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is assumed. If you do not already know at least the first two parts of the Millennium Trilogy, what follows contains major spoilers.
Hornet’s Nest begins exactly where Fire left off. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), shot multiple times, is being medevaced by helicopter from the farm to which she had tracked the Russian gangster, Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), who also happens to be Lisbeth’s father. Zalachenko is brought to the same hospital, with ax wounds inflicted by Lisbeth; his injuries are serious but not fatal. Lisbeth’s half-brother, the freakish blond hulk, Niedermann (Micke Spreitz), has fled the scene, ambushing and murdering two police officers to make good his escape.
Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), who alerted the police after tracking Lisbeth to Zalachenko’s farm, asks his sister, Annika (Annika Hallin), to act as Lisbeth’s attorney. No longer accused of the three murders for which she was framed in Fire, Lisbeth is now charged with the attempted murder of Zalachenko – and the case gets special handling. The showdown at the farm has put a public spotlight on Zalachenko, threatening to expose the covert government officials who have protected him ever since he defected from the former Soviet Union. As Blomkvist learned in Fire from various sources, including a retired military man named Gunnar Björk (Ralph Carlsson), these shadowy figures sheltered Zalachenko’s criminal activities and covered up his abuse of his wife and daughter. It was they who arranged for Lisbeth to be committed to an asylum at age twelve, after she tried to kill Zalachenko to protect her mother. For two years, Lisbeth suffered unspeakable torment under the “care” of a supposedly respectable psychiatrist, Dr. Teleborian (Anders Ahlbom). Now these same men are again moving against her. They want her certified insane and returned to Dr. Teleborian.
Blomkvist, too, is busy. Working from Björk’s files, he has commandeered the entire staff of Millennium magazine and is driving himself and everyone else mercilessly to produce a full issue devoted to Lisbeth and the officially sanctioned crimes against her. He wants the issue published in time for Lisbeth’s trial. His editor-in-chief (and occasional lover), Erika (Lena Endre), has her doubts, and she becomes even more apprehensive when Millennium begins receiving anonymous death threats. But Blomkvist enlists other allies, including Lisbeth’s former employer, Milton Security, and new acquaintances from an unexpected source.
A trial is eventually held, but it will look odd to anyone used to our system of criminal justice. Juries are peculiar to America and England. In the rest of Europe, a criminal trial is more a debate between prosecution and defense before a panel of judges, with each side calling witnesses and presenting evidence. This turns out to be a superior format for dramatic purposes, especially when we get to Dr. Teleborian’s evaluation of Lisbeth.
Lurking in the background throughout the film is Lisbeth’s psychopathic half-brother, Niedermann. The last instruction he received from their father, Zalachenko, was to kill Lisbeth. He failed to complete the order and now appears single-mindedly determined to make amends.
Noomi Rapace remains a formidable presence, even though Lisbeth has relatively few lines and spends the first half of the film confined to a hospital room. By this point in the trilogy, Rapace so thoroughly embodies Lisbeth that she can convey volumes with just the quality of a stare or the angle of a head tilt. As her quietly determined neurosurgeon (Aksel Morisse) tells her: “You’re one of the most entertaining patients I’ve had in a long time.” When, just over an hour and half into the film, Lisbeth finally appears in an especially elaborate version of her punk regalia – it’s her way of putting on her best outfit for court – the moment is something of a rush, both for Lisbeth and for the audience.
While Fire was more of a detective story, Hornet’s Nest plays like a paranoid spy thriller. Together they add up to a detailed “origin story” of one of the most intriguing characters in recent popular fiction. The real shame is that, having completed the backstory, Larsson died before he could finish imagining Lisbeth’s future. Despite rumors of outlines and uncompleted drafts, it appears that the last we’ll see of Lisbeth Salander is the conclusion of Hornet’s Nest. All things considered, it’s not a bad place to leave her.
To damn with faint praise: Music Box’s Blu-ray is watchable. But in 2011, there is simply no excuse for a Blu-ray of a recent film to be just “watchable”.
Thanks to information kindly supplied by Ola Bäccman, the digital colorist for both Fire and Hornet’s Nest, we know that both films were shot on 16mm, consistent with the “rougher look” desired by director Daniel Alfredson (as opposed to the glossy, more formally composed style adopted by director Niels Arden Oplev for Dragon Tattoo). At the time Mr. Bäccman supplied this information, he had not yet seen any of the Blu-rays for the films, but had heard complaints about noise and digital artifacts and raised the question of whether what people were seeing was the more obvious grain structure of 16mm film.
Well, I paid special attention when I saw Hornet’s Nest projected on film, which is why I can say with confidence: It ain’t grain.
As anyone who was around for the early days of DVD will remember, grainy images are a challenge for a video compressionist, because they don’t compress well. They’re much more likely to produce what we used to call “mosquito noise”, because it looks like a swarm of tiny buzzing insects. The use of digital tools now generally lumped together under the heading “DNR” arose largely to simplify the compressionist’s job by stripping out the grain. With DVD’s limited bandwidth, it was frequently an essential step (and still is).
Not so with Blu-ray, which has both the bandwidth and the storage capacity to replicate even grainy images with remarkable accuracy – but only if you use the format to its full advantage. Music Box failed to do so on Fire and has failed again on Hornet’s Nest. By cramming a 147-minute film with noticeable grain structure onto a BD-25, they have forced the compressionist to create an image with obvious video noise in scene after scene. Some scenes are worse than others, with close-ups generally faring better than long shots.
This overcompression is especially unfortunate, because other facets of the image are impressive (due, no doubt, to the fact that it originated in the digital realm in which Mr. Bäccman completed his work). Colors are well delineated, and black levels are solid. Detail is quite good, but it would be better still if one could remove the fine layer of vibrating particles that overlays the image in far too many scenes. (No doubt there will be some reviews that claim this is part of the film’s “grain”. It isn’t. For an example, look at time marker 5:00, in the scene where Lisbeth first meets her doctor. The sizzling on the wall below the window is classic video noise.)
I watched the disc on a 72" screen connected through HDMI and was able to tune out the picture interference most of the time. If you watch on a smaller screen, or at 720p, or through a lesser connection (e.g., component), then you may find the image more pleasing. That doesn’t mean Music Box deserves a pass.
The viewer has a choice of the original Swedish language track (with optional English subtitles) or a dubbed English track. Both are in DD 5.1 at 640kb/ps, the highest rate for Dolby Digital. Here again, the use of a BD-25 has prevented the inclusion of lossless track, but the track we have is quite good. Bass extension is powerful, and surround effects, though sparingly used, are effective. (This is the first film in the trilogy to have a genuine action sequence.) The atmospheric score is once again by Jacob Groth.
Trailers. As with Fire, we only get trailers. The film’s trailer is available as a separate extra. At startup the disc plays trailers for The Sicilian Girl, Mesrine, Bride Flight, Largo Winch and Potiche. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button or the “top menu” button. All are separately available from the features menu.
Dragon Tattoo remains the true cinematic achievement of the trilogy, but the second two films are well worth your time, if you view them together. But the real message of this conclusion is directed to Music Box Films, and it’s this: Stop being cheap. You took over your Blu-ray production from MPI Home Video, but if you can’t do a better job, consider giving it back. MPI knows how to make a decent Blu-ray, as they demonstrated when they handled Tell No One for you. Your Blu-ray releases of the Millennium Trilogy, with your insistence on BD-25s and lack of lossless audio, makes your product substantially inferior to comparable offerings from Magnolia Home Video, Kino/Lorber and IFC Films. The people to whom you’re appealing are film enthusiasts, and we know when we’re being offered second-rate goods.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub