Directed by Joseph Kosinski — Screenplay by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick.
No, my fellow cineastes, your eyes are not deceiving you. This adaptation of the George Saunders short story Escape from Spiderhead was indeed directed by Joseph Kosinski whose film Top Gun: Maverick — a charming, thrilling, and crowd-pleasing legacy sequel — invigorated the film and movie theater industries by being a huge hit just this very month, and its screenplay was indeed written by the writers of Zombieland, Deadpool, and Life — Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. When you add the fact that Spiderhead is spearheaded by acting talents like Marvel Studios’ God of Thunder, Chris Hemsworth, and Whiplash lead, Miles Teller (who also starred in Top Gun: Maverick), then it starts to sound like the kind of film that ought to have been released in theaters or, at the very least, been given a larger marketing push than it has gotten thus far. You’d be right in thinking that. Even though it has some issues, it deserves far better than falling into obscurity as one of the many overlooked entries in Netflix’s vast content library.
Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead takes place inside a mysterious penitentiary — known as ‘Spiderhead’ — wherein its prisoners have volunteered to participate in experiments researching emotion- or perception-altering drugs. These drugs or chemicals, which are inserted into your body through a device on your lower back (and controlled by a smart-phone), can make you think anything is funny, make you fall in love with anything or anyone, make you scared of pretty much anything, and much more than that. The film primarily follows Jeff (played by Miles Teller), one of its prisoners and experimental subjects, who participates gladly and who enjoys a good rapport with the overseer of the experiment, Steve Abnesti (played by Chris Hemsworth). But when the overseeing company and penitentiary want to research the long-lasting effects of its love drug by asking Jeff to decide which of his fellow test subjects should feel the effects of a pain-related drug, Jeff starts to question Steve’s intentions.
Spiderhead has this really fascinating concept about the ability to tweak, manipulate, alter, or lessen your natural emotions. The fictional drugs that are being tested here are fascinating. Some of them are enticing. But mostly this manipulation is a scary thing. It’s this unattainable notion of liberating oneself from anxiety and regret, and, at the same time, putting on rose-colored glasses (an effect that one of the film’s fictional drugs basically can accomplish no matter who or what you’re facing). But it’s an illusion. It’s a corporate product manufactured to provide you with the illusion of control over your emotions that also makes you less human and more controlled, neutered, or manipulated. These are fascinating ideas and, for most of the first two acts, Kosinski’s film succeeds in communicating these ideas, but, in the end, I’m not sure the film had all that much new to say about the human experience, the pharmaceutical industry, or imprisonment.
If it had all come together into a cohesive heady whole in the third act, then it would undoubtedly be one of the year’s most exciting streaming finds. Unfortunately, I think the third act is a bit too bumpy. It isn’t as intellectually sharp, ultimately, as its excellent setup had suggested to me. In spite of that blunted and relatively intellectually ineffective third act, I still had a good time with the film, though. A lot of it has to do with the charismatic performance given by Chris Hemsworth. Hemsworth has proven himself to be more than just a big-screen superhero. He is an excellent comedic talent that knows how to use his looks to the desired comedic effect. In Bad Times at the El Royale, an underseen star-studded gem of a film, he plays a magnetic cult leader, and he has taken some of that devilish charisma and added it to his good looks and comedic chops, and what he comes up with on-screen is what holds this film together and energizes it. Without Hemsworth it would have felt flat and, frankly, the tonal blend — Reese and Wernick’s writing has the film going swiftly from oddly funny to really dark — wouldn’t have worked without him.
The supporting performances, of which I’ll single out the ones given by Jurnee Smollett and Miles Teller, the latter of whom has quietly become a reliable actor for Kosinski, as he has appeared in his last three films. Teller is outstanding in Kosinski’s very sad biopic Only the Brave (it’s arguably his very best supporting work), and he’s solid in Top Gun: Maverick as one of its most pivotal characters. In Spiderhead, however, he doesn’t leave a significant impression. The dark flashbacks that the film makes use of help to flesh out his character, but his character never jumped off the page for me. Smollett is similarly decent, though I think it might’ve been a fine idea to let her character’s backstory be delivered to audiences in a different way than it ultimately is. It feels sudden and extremely dark, but clumsy to have it be communicated entirely through exposition and her facial reactions.
The film reminded me of everything from Michael Bay’s The Island, Alex Garland’s Ex_Machina, and Claire Denis’ High Life to Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment and the Daniel Kaluuya-led “Fifteen Million Merits,” episode of Black Mirror. The concept feels very much like an episode of that popular show, but this dystopian sci-fi film feels more cinematic than that thanks to the shots outside of the facility, which, inside, otherwise has this late 20th century and yet futuristic aesthetic blend to it. The facility and the film, however, also do feel like they have a lot of empty space, which informs us that it likely went into production during tight COVId-19 production restrictions. However, this emptiness only adds to the aesthetic, I thought.
Buoyed up and energized significantly by Chris Hemsworth’s charismatic performance, Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead isn’t the home run that his last film, Top Gun: Maverick, was, but it is a science-fiction film with a nice concept, a good soundtrack, and enough star-power to make it worth your while, even though it may not have as much to say as the first two acts suggest.
7.5 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.