The latest psychological thriller from Netflix comes from Joseph Kosinski, director of the highly praised Top Gun: Maverick, and Deadpool writing duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. It is based on the 2010 short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by award-winning author George Saunders, first published in The New Yorker and then later in his collection Tenth of December. Spiderhead has all the ingredients for an intriguing satire — the dangers of technology, unethical practices for the greater good, redemption, survival, human emotion, etc. However, capturing the tone of George Saunders in a visual medium just seems impossible, and the film ultimately falls short.
Bespeckled scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) runs a remote penitentiary housing convicts willing to undergo drug experiments in exchange for a cozier prison environment. Abnesti appears to be friendly with one of his subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller), who begins to question the ethics of the experiments. Abnesti answers to the vaguely named: Protocol Committee, and regularly spouts the rhetoric of the typical Silicon Valley tech villain — “We’re changing the world.” But we immediately see through this friendly warden act and know Abnesti has a more nefarious agenda.
Jeff has a playful, flirty kinship with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). The guilt he feels for his crime keeps an emotional barrier between them. The prisoners have all been sentenced for their various heinous crimes. Under Abnesti’s care, they have a sense of freedom, trading in cuffs or prison garb for a modern dormitory atmosphere. All they have to do is let this good-looking mad scientist inject them with mind-altering drugs that bring intense feelings of giddiness, obedience, arousal, happiness, and debilitating fear.
Anyone familiar with the work of George Saunders knows that he has a wickedly dark sense of humor and interest in human behavior. “Escape from Spiderhead” is funny, disturbing, and tragic. While it’s a great story, it doesn’t translate well as a film. Whether or not you’ve read the story, the mystery at the center of Spiderhead isn’t really that mysterious or revelatory. Tonally, it’s all over the place and doesn’t have the same feel as Saunders’ story.
Kosinski told Deadline: “Spiderhead is a reminder that not everything needs to be based on known IP and that the best special effect can be a fantastic performance.” I definitely agree since I believe the acting is the only highlight of the film.
The lead actors do their best with the material they’re given. Without Jurnee Smollett’s emotional nuances, Lizzy would’ve been a rather dull character. This film might’ve done well with Jeff’s inner dialogue guiding us instead of just translating bits of his narration as actual dialogue. Jeff is less interesting and insightful in the film, but that’s not the fault of Miles Teller. The actor said, “I wanted to portray that sense of trust, in the beginning, to help show that there’s a real earnestness and sincerity on Abnesti’s part toward helping everybody.”
Abnesti is a complex character in Saunders’ story whose motivations are implied but not really explored because everything is from Jeff’s point of view. Despite this, Hemsworth delivers an enjoyable performance. He’s already proven his comedic talents in other roles, most notably as the God of Thunder. The limited banter and tension between Abnesti and his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio) are almost as entertaining as it is in the original story.
The music in Spiderhead sounds like someone’s 80s playlist on shuffle. It’s odd and distracting, jumping from song to song without any real purpose or transition. Halfway through the film, a tense score kicks in, but by that time, I’d already accepted that music clearly wasn’t used to convey, well, anything in particular. So, the change isn’t quite jarring but suddenly feels more familiar, like it should’ve been like this the whole time.
Spiderhead is the ideal project to film during the pandemic. Sets have an open-spaced, minimalist aesthetic. There’s a touch of retrofuturistic, but the overall vibe is that any billionaire could have this same setup. The penitentiary looks more like the interior of a spaceship than an actual prison, which is Abnesti’s doing. The place is still windowless, save for a few skylights and Abnesti’s incredible view from his quarters, but there are no bars.
Spiderhead isn’t quite what viewers will expect, or even like. It barely fits into the dystopian sci-fi thriller category. It’s more of a dark comedy attempting to convey a profound sci-fi message. The film mostly stayed true to its source material and featured some scenes/dialogue straight from the story, but failed to carry the same tone and wit as Saunders. Though Spiderhead isn’t as dark as High Life, or as intriguing as Ex Machina, two highly acclaimed sci-fi thrillers of the last decade, it might still be worth a watch for the performances and set design.
Spiderhead begins streaming on June 17, 2022, on Netflix.
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Cassondra Feltus is a St. Louis-based freelance writer best known for film, television, and pop culture analysis which has appeared on Black Girl Nerds, WatchMojo, and The Take. She loves naps, Paul Rudd, and binge-watching the latest series with her two gorgeous pups – Harry and DeVito.