A remote island that can only be accessed via a boat or a small, one-person aircraft is where the Spiderhead compound resides. Somewhere tropical where the weather doesn’t drop below 70 degrees I assume. Acting as a front that houses incarcerated prisoners by request, where the so-called prisoners volunteer for futuristic drug testing, the facility resembles an early 1970’s megalomaniac Bond villain’s compound straight from the Roger Moore era. It’s modern design layout and unconventional methods for treating prisoners adds a new flavor to the science fiction genre. Here there is an open-door policy, prisoners are given certain freedoms to an extent – a spacious room, area to eat and interact with one another without guards, outside time, and arcade games. Don’t they have it easy.
Running the show is Steve Abnesi (Chris Hemsworth) who is testing drugs on himself and prisoners that will change the world. The drug is administered via an iOS application where Abnesi or his partner Mark (Mark Paguio) select the subject via the vials connected to their lower back. The effect is instantaneous and can range from extreme fits of laughter to crippling fear and paranoia, extreme amounts of hunger to falling in love. All of this disguised to test a drug named O-B-D-X, complete obedience by the person on the receiving end of the drug. Still in its testing phase, Steve and Mark take a volunteer named Jeff (Miles Teller) to a construction zone by a nearby Power Plant and administer N-40, with acknowledgment, euphoria sets in and all Jeff can see is sunshine and completely disregard the foul stench coming from the plant.
Coming off an unbelievable run in theaters and recently crossing the billion-dollar mark, director Joseph Kosinski teams back up with Teller to give their take on a high concept sci-fi fare that doesn’t come anywhere near the density of Ex Machina by Alex Garland. Lacking stakes and tension. Though the two share similarities between protagonist and antagonist, Kosinski’s film plays it much safer than Garland’s. Based on the short story Escape from Spiderhead by author George Saunders, writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, who also co-wrote Deadpool inject some of that stylistic humor into their screenplay which is given to the more comedic Hemsworth who is laughing at his own joke’s half of the time, and somewhat reveling in his own beauty.
I do prefer Oscar Isaac’s dance number to Hemsworth’s in Ex Machina.
Beyond the concept, the film features the familial tropes one would come across in this type of genre film. I found myself more involved in the relationships between characters rather than the science fiction aspect. Jeff and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are infinitely more interesting as the story progresses than the drugs successes and failures. And there are extreme failures to the tests, revolving around Darkenfloxx – the drug that causes severe panic and anxiety. Teller and Smollett’s chemistry keep the ship afloat for 107 minutes while Hemsworth does his best villain impression. Watching their relationship go from flirtatious to love without the drugs give the story it’s hope. Hemsworth has given his career a boost since Thor: Ragnarok leaning more heavily into his comedic timing – does this guy ever have a bad hair/ beard day and is he ever just not charismatic? Hemsworth isn’t the problem at all, doing the best with what is given to him, it’s the writing. Spiderhead takes what has been done before and puts the vehicle on cruise control, never pushing the boundaries of what this interesting concept could be.
Featured in the early Netflix release preview, Spiderhead boasts a strong cast that will end up being a middle of the pack original for the streaming service. We should count our blessings that there was even marketing for this film in the first place. Given the talent attached, talent alone cannot guarantee a successful film, especially one that is largely a derivative work.
Miles Teller is having himself quite a year in the first 6 months of 2022 – first Top Gun: Maverick, then The Offer on Paramount Plus and now Spiderhead – he gives a heart wrenching performance as a person looking for redemption. Laced throughout the narrative is a flashback of Jeff’s crime that got him where his is when the story begins. Getting behind the wheel while inebriated and crashing headfirst into a tree, killing his friend and at the time girlfriend.
Spiderhead’s themes are there, dealing with free will and manipulation, the corporate agenda and the heavy toll drugs have on a person, Steve’s character is written as if he saw a Roger Moore Bond on re-run tv and decided to mimic their flair for their grand plan in taking over the world. All he needs is a henchmen like Jaws but Steve settles for two muscular guards who keep the peace. Keeping it together for 2/3 of the film, it isn’t until the final act that Steve’s villainous side shows itself to the Guinea pigs, trapped in his madhouse as his narcissistic need for control rears it’s ugly head.
When all is said and done, Spiderhead is serviceable and a fine entry into the science fiction genre. Beyond the trio of Hemsworth, Teller, and Smollett, the rest of the characters aren’t given the same attention to add any significance to the story. One big moment happens, and it didn’t matter. I am intrigued by the Kosinski/Teller pair up, the two together, given the right script have the potential to be an unstoppable force.
Written By: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick
Directed By: Joseph Kosinski
Music By: Joseph Trapanese
Cinematography: Claudio Miranda
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio
Where to Watch: Netflix
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Running Time: 1 Hour 47 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 41%
Based On: Escape From Spiderhead by George Saunders