The gap between shooting Top Gun: Maverick and actually releasing Tom Cruise’s world-beating legacy sequel was so large that director Joseph Kosinski managed to squeeze in making a whole other reasonably-budgeted thriller during the interregnum. That film is Spiderhead, adapted from the George Saunders short story Escape From Spiderhead. The fact that it quietly debuted on Netflix rather than smashed box office records like an ATG missile smashes an unsanctioned uranium enrichment facility should indicate how to adjust your expectations.
Not that Spiderhead doesn’t offer some fun, and some food for thought. The titular facility is a kind of “special privileges” island prison in the unspecified near future, where inmates get better treatment in return for allowing pharmaceutical tests to be conducted on them by warden/head boffin Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). The idea is to lessen crime—and suffering—via chemical control. Abnesti has hooked his subjects up to little colour-coded injection packs set at the base of their spines that allow him to deliver doses via an app.
It’s all for the greater good, Hemsworth’s Steve Jobs-esque friendly face of pharma assures us some time after chemically-induced passion has seen our point-of-view character Jeff (Miles Teller) and fellow inmate Heather (Tess Haubrich) go at it like rabbits. After all, if everyone could feel like that at the touch of a button, what need for crime?
We’ve been down this path before, from Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World to the mood organs in Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? There’s also a touch of Andrew Niccol’s Gattaca, marketed with a tagline proclaiming that “there is no gene for the human spirit”. Spiderhead instead ponders if there is no salve for the human heart—no artificial one, at least, as Jeff meditates on the transgressions that brought him to his current state (this is a prison, after all) and attempts a halting connection with fellow prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), even as the ever-smiling but dead-eyed Abnesti puts him through stranger and more confronting “tests”.
Kosinski, who cut his teeth on special effects before jumping to directing, brings an icy, considered visual style to the proceedings that recalls his first two features, Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. His characters belong to a world defined by brutalist architecture and smooth, indifferent technology that highlights their human flaws and failings.
For most of the running time he keeps a firm hand on the film’s tricky tone and gets maximum bang for his buck out of limited locations and a small cast (and we may as well namecheck Alex Garland’s Ex Machina at this point). Unfortunately, it all comes apart in the third act, when the whole thing defaults to action thriller tropes and a sudden shift in mood that does a lot of damage to what has been carefully built up to that point—throwing the source story under the bus, to boot.
This sadly relegates Spiderhead to “fun weekend viewing” rather than “future classic” status. That’s a shame; if Kosinski had stuck to its guns, staying true to the source material, it’d be a lot closer to the latter. It’s fun to see Hemsworth in charming villain mode, though. Between this and Bad Times at the El Royale its clear he has fun being the bad guy—and we’d probably have fun if he did it more often.