2022, R, 107 mins.
Chris Hemsworth as Steve Abnesti / Miles Teller as Jeff / Jurnee Smollett as Rachel / Tess Haubrich as Heather / BeBe Bettencourt as Emma / Angie Miliken as SarahDirected by Joseph Kosinski / Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story by George Saunders
Director Joseph Kosinski is no stranger at all to the sci-fi genre, having previously helmed the terribly underrated OBLIVION as well as one of the best legacy sequels ever made in TRON: LEGACY. And speaking of legacy sequels, he's on a bit of a creative role as of late with the box office and critical smash TOP GUN: MAVERICK.
SPIDERHEAD, which is based on the dystopian short story ESCAPE FROM
SPIDERHEAD by George Saunders and features a compellingly smaller scale
genre effort for the large scale filmmaker, and one that harkens back to
the paranoia and character driven potboilers of the 1970s.
This more modestly helmed Netflix sci-fi thriller is refreshing for
Kosinski, not to mention that it contains some solid performances and
intriguingly delves into some thoughtful themes as old as the sci-fi genre
is itself (most notably, the idea of free will versus medical induced
though, Kosinski's overall execution of the said material is awkwardly
uneven, sometimes confusingly scripted (by DEADPOOL
scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) and builds towards muddled and
unsatisfying payoffs throughout.
The core premise
here, though, is pretty cool, but just one that's not seen through to
successful fruition. The
title comes from the name of an island prison compound that's secluded and
closed off from most of the outside world.
Working and overseeing Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research is
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth, also producing here), who's essentially in
charge of a massive scientific and social experiment with a motley crew of
convicted criminals that have broken the law in one form or another.
Initially at least, Spiderhead doesn't look like any normal prison
at all; the inmates are allowed pretty free reign in terms of their
movements and actions and, for the most part, the whole penitentiary looks
like a cross between an Apple store and a vacation retreat.
There's one big catch when it comes to prisoner
"freedom": They're all attached to a device called a MobiPak,
which in turn contains vials of drugs (of Steve's design) that can
artificially stimulate certain emotions
and behaviors. Steve's loyal
assistant in Verlaine (Mark Paguio) assists him in administering the drugs
to the inmates, but only if they verbally agree.
Each one of the vials contains a different drug that elicits a
different response: One makes its human guinea pig laugh at anything
spoken to him (no matter how vile), another makes inmates incredibly
promiscuous and yearning for sex with whoever is across from them, and
another can make the users live out their worst nightmares.
(Miles Teller), is one of Steve's MVP test subjects in terms of him
showing an incredibly quick response to the various MobiPak cocktails
given to him. He's guilty of
a crime that's not immediately made apparent (but is revealed slowly, but
surely via flashbacks), so he willfully agrees to be Steve's lab rat with
the perceived promise of a reduced sentence and eventual freedom.
One of the more enthralling (if not uneasy) sequences in the film
has Jeff and a fellow inmate, Heather (Tess Haubrich), having been
injected with the drug that puts them both into instant heat, which
culminates with them having rough sex in the exam room.
Jeff tries to keep a low profile at Spiderhead, but manages to make
a few friends while there, including Rachel (Jurnee Smollett), with both
of them learning the ins and outs of the MobiPak program.
Steve is trying to attain the "perfect" drug (dubbed
N-40), which he believes will allow him to reach his scientific end game,
but before he gets there he needs data from patients injected with that
aforementioned nightmare fuel drug, dubbed Darkenfloxx.
As Jeff becomes more of a willing participant in Steve's
experiments the more immersed he gets with the actual truth behind both
Spiderhead and the not-so-ethical motives of Steve himself.
Nothing about the
themes or premise of SPIDERHEAD will be anything new to those even vaguely
familiar with the sci-fi genre, like its examination of forced control,
submitting to authority, the manipulation of said authority, and how drugs
can be used to numb inmates into convenient docility, leading them, in the
end, to be trapped in a different form of psychological prison.
I admired the relative stylistic restraint that Kosinski employs
here, who has demonstrated an absolute command of helming epic
blockbusters with wall-to-wall VFX and action.
SPIDERHEAD is insular minded and minimalist, but still while
maintaining a glossy sheen throughout.
It's less action focused than it is cerebral, which I think is
amply suitable considering the underlining material here, and in many ways
it reminded me a lot - as previously mentioned - of the types of
thoughtful and contemplative human sci-fi dramas that existed decades ago
before bombastic spectacle dominated the genre.
SPIDERHEAD is an eerie mood piece throughout, and generates
chilling suspense in simple scenes that involve mainly verbal standoffs.
Much of what's in the film is commendably economical and driven
mostly by dialogue, which is to its credit.
That, and the
story contains some enthralling mysteries at its epicenter, like Jeff's
tortured past and how he has come to process and deal with his massive
sense of guilt and loss. We
also grow to learn more about his companion in Rachel and what she may or
may not be hiding about her own troubled past with the law from
Jeff. Then, of course, we get into the headspace of Spiderhead's
chief architect in Steve, who outwardly appears like a calm spoken and
congenial man of science that professes to want to help these inmates, but
deep down you just know that something is definitely rotten to the core
about his overall plan. A
considerable amount of tension is generated just in the central
relationship between Steve and Jeff, and the former's descent into some of
the more morally questionable aspects of his the experiment as a whole.
Jeff gets so close inside Steve's inner circle that he even allows
him to come to the main control center.
While there, Jeff is asked by Steve to pump other inmates with
Darkenfloxx, which propels Jeff into thinking that Steve is most likely
not on the line as to what he's doing in search of knowledge.
As Jeff grows closer to Rachel, Steve begins to demonstrate more
outright sinister actions and conspires to use each against the other in a
perverted psychological chess game of will.
It becomes clearer to Jeff and Rachel that this superficially
kindly scientist has a maddening God complex and will stop at nothing to
get results, even if it means destroying lives.
Again, all of
this has so much potential and is fascinating on paper, but one of
SPIDERHEAD's errors is in its
casting of Steve himself. Hemwsorth is a good actor and a thoroughly commanding
physical presence on screen when given the right role, but he seems a bit
out of his element as the evil genius with delusions of grandeur the
permeates just about every scene in the film.
I appreciate it when the THOR actor
tries to take on role and performance challenges outside of his usual MCU
wheelhouse, and this is certainly no exception. He's definitely fine
at conveying the creepy hustler mentality that typifies this antagonist.
Having said that, I did find that he failed to play this villain
with much nuance, opting to go big and broad, sometimes distractingly so. And
maybe - just maybe - Hemsworth is just too distractingly good
looking to be taken credibly as a big pharma scientist with sinister
impulses and a true heart of darkness. All throughout SPIDERHEAD I kept on thinking what a great
character actor like a Chris Cooper or a Michael Shannon could have done
with this villain. More often
than not, Hemsworth looks like a runway model cosplaying as a mad