Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich, BeBe Bettencourt, Angie Miliken, Joey Vieira, Nathan Jones, Ron Smyck, and Mark Paguio.
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.
There’s a moment during Spiderhead where the incarcerated Jeff (Miles Teller) pushes back on the presumption of seeking redemption, acknowledging that he deserves to be in the titular high-end penitentiary functioning as a combination of pleasure and punishment. Plenty of freedom inside is granted, alongside recreational rooms featuring arcade game machines and more, but at its core, it’s a remote island building for scientist Steve Abnesti (a diabolically unhinged for the greater good Chris Hemsworth) to test experimental drugs on convicts that manipulate their behavior and emotions in multiple ways, ranging from honesty to love to horniness to laughter to physical pain and more.
That’s the right approach by Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (adapting the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders) and director Joseph Kosinski (who currently also has Top Gun: Maverick, the movie of the summer in theaters right now, with this making for yet another collaboration between himself and Miles Teller), but at a certain point, the film becomes afraid to commit to presenting its protagonists in an irredeemable light fully. The characters themselves might not feel worthy of forgiveness, and they probably don’t deserve anyone’s forgiveness. However, that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from transitioning into a baffling happy ending that seems to go against the initial neutral, more observant stance on their past and current interactions. That’s not to say that second chances shouldn’t exist, but more that there is a lopsided misguidedness to the story Spiderhead becomes.
It’s also unlikely Netflix or anyone gave the filmmakers notes encouraging them to pull back from dark material and make Spiderhead a bit more comfortable for the typical moviegoer to swallow; this feels like the movie they wanted to make, for better and worse. That’s also a shame because the craftsmanship is there; the production design of the facility is sleek, hinting at something both pleasantly inviting yet nefarious. Several cheeky needle drops of classic one-hit wonders align with what Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have busted out on the Deadpool movies. Meanwhile, Joseph Kosinski’s direction cleverly uses lighting and selective camera angles to capture the tremendous emotion conveyed by the performers.
The terrific acting starts with Miles Teller’s Jeff. He has volunteered to live in the Spiderhead prison and has been there for quite some time following a drunk driving incident that left him badly injured and one of his best friends dead. He is allowed access to make unreturned phone calls to his girlfriend before the incident but has mostly taken a liking to Lizzy (an outstanding Jurnee Smollett who makes the most out of a third-act confessional sequence that should be gutwrenching but is executed with baffling writing that circles back into the issues above that the script wants these characters to be irredeemable but still heroic in a sense, which doesn’t mix), who he shares cooking duties with. For the first two-thirds, Spiderhead handles this dynamic well and thoughtfully, simply allowing viewers to empathize with the idea that although Jeff is responsible for something horrific, there is something sincere and caring here.
However, most of Jeff’s time is spent alongside Steve and his trepidatious assistant (Mark Paguio), under the influence of new drugs (they are slickly injected through the push of a button digitally connected to small circular packs attached to the convict’s body). Initially, Steve appears primarily fixated on the ability for two people to fall in love on command (a highly amusing segment funny bit for blocking nudity) but is also toying around with blunt honesty and obedience. Unexpectedly, the daily experiments become more psychologically excruciating for Jeff, who is forced to choose a recipient for a painful drug to see if he has any romantic feelings remaining for any of the love interests.
There are some twists and turns throughout Spiderhead, but aside from the occasional moment of intelligent foreshadowing, nothing is shocking about the narrative’s trajectory. As the film progresses, reasons are revealed for Steve’s obsession with testing some of these drugs and the company he works for, with Chris Hemsworth pulling off a solid acting challenge (the final 15 minutes or so give him some great highlights). There is a sad, tragic character there, with the script naturally questioning at times which is worse between the scientist and subjects.
Unfortunately, Spiderhead doesn’t feel as dark and morally challenging as it is set up to be. It’s all played a bit too safe when it’s begging for a nastier and more sadistic treatment without sacrificing the dark humor. The film consistently goes out of its way to soften our perception of the protagonists, with entire scenes dedicated to explaining how everyone else here is far more despicable, rather than allowing viewers to be challenged on something more morally uncomfortable and bold.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]