Synopsis – In the near future, convicts are offered the chance to volunteer as medical subjects to shorten their sentence. One such subject for a new drug capable of generating feelings of love begins questioning the reality of his emotions.
My Take – On paper this latest Netflix sci-fi thriller has a lot of going for it.
It is headlined and co-produced by Chris Hemsworth (Thor: Ragnarok, Extraction), co-stars Miles Teller (fresh off the success of Top Gun: Maverick and the Paramount+ series The Offer) and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey, and the underrated HBO series Lovecraft Country), is directed by Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick, Oblivion) and penned by screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Deadpool 2), who adapt bestselling author George Saunders‘s short story, Escape from Spiderhead, which was first published in the New Yorker in 2010.
Staged in the form of a throwback original sci-fi which acted both as a star vehicle and a smarter-than-it-seems chamber piece, on the lines of Logan’s Run (1976), this one starts off as an intelligent, sometimes moving, sometimes funny film about prisoners, experimental drugs, and the nature of consent.
But while the film moves along as an engaging experience by playing around its dark premise delightfully, it unfortunately, eventually loses itself down a disappointingly conventional path in the third act, never quite sticking its landing and finishing with a fizzle. Making it seem more like a discarded Black Mirror episode.
Though, there are some interesting concepts stemming in the plot that could’ve been explored, but both director Kosinski and writers Reese and Wernick never seem intent on straying too far from the basic of the set up, and end up extracting only the bare minimum out of the whole idea.
Sure, what plays out is pretty forgettable, but the overall film itself is not a terrible watch, just nothing game-changing. Plus, it’s a lot of fun to watch Chris Hemsworth dance his way across the screen as a malevolent tech bro.
The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a convict who is serving a sentence for manslaughter after a drunken car ride resulted in the death of his friend, but instead of a general prison he has been given the opportunity to serve his term in the relatively cushy Spiderhead unit for experimental psychology, located on a remote island and run by the eccentric Dr. Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), in exchange for being tested upon.
Here, Jeff along with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), Heather (Tess Haubrich) and other specially chosen lab–rats consent to have various hi-tech drugs flooded into their system from a special unit fixed to their lower back. Drugs that make them irrationally happy, sad and horny, all the while as Dr. Abnesti and his increasingly unhappy assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) look on from behind the two-way mirror.
But when a new aggression drug called Darkenflox is introduced into their system and the tests become more and more sinister, Jeff begins to uncover details of the experiments that are seemingly being kept secret.
Aesthetically speaking, the film looks sleek and attractive and director Kosinski makes the film look as interesting as possible, considering it largely takes place in one location and was filmed during pandemic lock-downs. The way he shoots around the tight corners and intimate spaces of the facility can be unsettling, as is the intention.
But his greatest success here comes with the interaction between the actors, as the film is mostly a two-person show between Jeff and Steve, with some external gravitational pull in the form of Lizzy and Steve’s hesitant assistant Mark.
Underneath the style, there’s a solid message about how, as people, we’re better than our worst mistakes, even if that’s a message our increasingly fraught cancel culture doesn’t always embrace. But what lingers with the viewer is the philosophical question of how much control one could have over one’s emotions, or have the freedom to experience them, or how much could one be willing to surrender in the right circumstance.
But for all its thematic grandiosity, Steve’s ultimate master-plan, never fully comes together.
As a character, Steve is too thinly drawn, and the film’s dedication to project him as a hero of his own story is a pointless distraction that gets in the way of making us feel for Jeff and his guilt. Leaving the film without any individual character growth or compelling about Jeff, Steve, or even Lizzy to make them worth watching.
As a result, you don’t really care what happens to them. Making matters worse is the fact that the film can’t decide whether it wants to be a paranoid thriller or a darkly comedic satire of our times. Clearly, there was a different third act to this film, but in the hopes to provide trailer fodder, it suddenly shifts gears from the low-key human story to action-oriented scenes, leaving everything previously built, all high and dry.
Nevertheless, making this feature immensely watchable is Chris Hemsworth, who excellent exudes tech bro privilege and optimism, masking his nightmare experiments under the guise of saving the world. Hemsworth‘s broad smiles and euphemistic language disguising ruthless intent, and a volatility that pairs well with the film’s unfurling narrative. At one point, he even jokes about how much he’s benefited from looking so beautiful. Miles Teller’s lead performance is characteristically layered and complex. We believe the pain and shame that has driven him.
Jurnee Smollett too is successful in making her character sympathetic with a similarly traumatic past. In supporting turns, Mark Paguio, Tess Haubrich, Angie Milliken, Joey Vierira, Stephen Tongun, Sam Delich and BeBe Bettencourt are good. On the whole, ‘Spiderhead’ is a decent sci-fi thriller which despite some engaging ideas never truly realizes its full potential.
Directed – Joseph Kosinski
Rated – R
Run Time – 106 minutes