After directing what is easily the blockbuster of the summer so far (Top Gun: Maverick, in case you missed the box office headlines), Joseph Kosinski’s newest film, Spiderhead, moves away from 80s nostalgia and action-packed flights and moves to a vastly different place: a mysterious experimental prison facility in a quiet sci-fi thriller that stumbles in its attempts of social commentary, likely to leave even the most curious Netflix subscribers confused about what they just saw.
Spiderhead is an adaption of George Saunders’s famous short story, Enter the Spiderhead, and despite compelling performances from Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller, as well as interesting production design, the film fails to convey the source material’s uniqueness and innate entertainment value.
The film follows Jeff (Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), two inmates in an experimental facility called Spiderhead, which is managed by the charismatic and mysterious Dr. Steve Absenti (Chris Hemsworth). Unlike other penitentiaries, Spiderhead gives its prisoners a lot more flexibility. They have their own rooms, the ability to walk through the halls, and access to snacks and even arcade games, all of this with minimal prison staff on the premises.
In exchange, they’re willing test subjects in a variety of mysterious drug experiments, which cause them to have everything from a perpetual state of hunger to the most profound physical and psychological anguish. As Jeff and Lizzy grow closer, and the experiments become more twisted and perverse, the two will confront the mystery of what is actually going on in the facility and what price they’re willing to pay for their perceived “freedom.”
Even with its engaging hook of a premise, Spiderhead is an ultimately soulless piece of fiction. Partly because it tries to turn its ambiguous, intriguing world into a safe, generic blockbuster. The result is a strange hybrid that brings the worst of both worlds: flat characters and flat action. The pacing and writing suffer as well. The first hour brims with clumsy world-building, and the dialogue is reminiscent of office small talk, which is a bizarrely bland choice considering the subject matter.
Teller and Smollett’s performance salvage the film, as they offer decent melancholy and intrigue to otherwise disengaged characters. They also provide a smart counterbalance to Hemsworth’s charismatic performance as Dr. Absenti, the highlight of the film, who combines the worst sides of Silicon Valley and the pharmaceutical industry into an egotistical bio-hacker unafraid of the impact his unfettered innovations might cause.
It also helps that the film’s main location, an isolated structure located in an idyllic group of islands, makes for a poetic setting. The bold lines and open spaces in the prison contrast with dark colors and concrete textures in a way that resembles the tension between the amenities the inmates gain, but also the steep cost they pay for it. If the rest of the film was at this level of intentional vision, Spiderhead would be far more worthy of the short story that birthed it.
For example, the adaptation mostly ditches the complex commentary of Saunders’ short story and instead favors a black-and-white approach, where heroes and villains rarely deviate from their archetypes. Rather than try to convey the original themes of sacrifice and redemption, the film mostly focuses on how evil moves through complex bureaucracies, framing its themes around the horrors of prisoner exploitation and unchecked corporate power. These are valid and important topics, and it makes sense for film adaptions to make appropriate changes for the sake of thematic content, but Spiderhead waters them down to the point of being almost unrecognizable from the story and much more similar to the troves of media already exploring well-read theses.
Despite all its problems, the film is basically watchable. There are some mildly funny gags, great song choices, and it all looks nice enough. But overall, Spiderhead is unfortunately a failed experiment.
Spiderhead is now available to stream on Netflix. Watch the official trailer here.