A film review by Craig J. Koban June 30, 2022

SPIDERHEAD jj
 

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 Sarah

Directed by Joseph Kosinski  /  Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story by George Saunders

ORIGINAL FILM

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.  

Now comes 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 control).  Unfortunately, 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.   

 

 

Inmate Jeff (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 scientist. 

That's too bad, because the always dependable Miles Teller is thanklessly good here playing opposite of his co-stars, especially Smollett, who generates such natural chemistry with him in their well framed scenes.  But it's almost as if Teller and Hemsworth are acting in two different films, which creates an odd disconnect.  Other elements take viewers immediately out of unsettling vibe that Kosinski is obviously aiming for, like a too quirky for its own good soundtrack littered with catchy tunes ranging from Supertramp to the Doobie Brothers to Hall & Oates (does every film these days need to have a GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY styled character with a killer mixtape that serves as background filler?).  And for as much as SPIDERHEAD wants to clearly say about the American prison system, humane treatment of prisoners, and science gone amok in treating people in need, Kosinski and his screenwriters never really find a manner to carry forward their nifty premise to enthralling fruition.  SPIDERHEAD feels both high concept and terribly undernourished on a development front, which builds towards obligatory standoffs, would-be shocking reveals that are not at all shocking, and a finale that seems too rigidly anticlimactic to make the resulting film truly nerve you to the core and stay with you.  For a consummate visionary director like Kosinski that specializes in extraordinary world building in his previous sci fi extravaganzas, it's disheartening to label SPIDERHEAD as an unfulfilling oddity and blip on his otherwise solid resume.  

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