When the author George Saunders was asked about the dark underpinnings of his short story “Escape From Spiderhead” in a 2010 interview, he gave an answer that would make any moviemaking executive sit bolt upright with interest. “More and more these days what I find myself doing in my stories is making a representation of goodness and a representation of evil and then having those two run at each other full-speed, like a couple of PeeWee football players, to see what happens. Who stays standing? Whose helmet goes flying off?” Saunders mused.
Hollywood loves nothing more than having heroes and villains collide like frenzied jocks for an audience’s delight. And now viewers can enjoy that strange spectacle in the star-studded Netflix thriller Spiderhead. Based on Saunders’s story, Joseph Kosinski’s film is indeed a classic cinematic clash between good and evil. But it’s tinged with enough of Saunders’s acerbic intelligence and humor to distinguish it from most summer shlock—at least until it reaches its uninspired conclusion.
Spiderhead, with a screenplay adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, is set in the titular futuristic prison, a brutalist island outpost that’s decorated with tasteful mid-century-modern furnishings. The inmates are free to roam, play foosball and video games, and munch on canapés. Their cells are comfy-looking dorm rooms, and their jailer is an avuncular scientist named Steve Abnesti (played by Chris Hemsworth) who insists on an “open-door policy.” (All of the doors are unlocked with the exception, of course, of the prison’s actual exit.) The downside is that each inmate has a bulky “MobiPak” installed on their lower back, loaded with experimental drugs that can flood their bloodstream in a second, and Abnesti is in charge of every dose.
Some of the formulas are fairly benign: “Verbaluce” helps the patient articulate their feelings with astonishing profundity, a useful prod for Abnesti as he conducts his many human trials. Another makes the subject laugh uncontrollably. A love potion promotes instant, burning passion between recipients, which then vanishes just as quickly when it wears off. But Abnesti has even sharper arrows in his medical quiver, too, most notably “Darkenfloxx,” a misery-inducing concoction with a name that sounds like a poisonous tincture a Dungeons & Dragons merchant might sell.
Abnesti’s best patient is the sullen, pliant Jeff (Miles Teller), a convict serving time for manslaughter who’s haunted by memories of the misbehavior that landed him in prison. As such, he’s mostly happy to be Abnesti’s guinea pig, particularly given the comparatively nice trappings of Spiderhead. But, quickly enough, Abnesti’s malicious intentions become clearer. The film turns into an extended piece of psychological warfare between a chipper mad scientist and his lab rats, as Jeff rediscovers a spark of independence, helped by another prisoner named Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett).
The standout of the film is Hemsworth, a gifted comic actor who took years to really reveal the breadth of his talent, because he was originally pigeonholed by Hollywood as a heroic beefcake. He plays Abnesti as a yacht-rock tech-bro nightmare, immaculately dressed and babbling motivational lingo. He overwhelms his subjects with witless banter while twiddling with their emotional dials as though he’s playing with a brand-new hi-fi sound system. The sense of menace is present from minute one, but Hemsworth layers in enough of his charm that Jeff’s predicament doesn’t immediately feel dire.
That satiric ambiguity underscores Saunders’s story too. In a lot of ways, Jeff’s imprisonment just amounts to a controlling job, and Abnesti is the exuberant boss given to eye-rolling motivational aphorisms. But Kosinski nicely handles the story’s slow shift into horror, as Abnesti’s enthusiasm tilts into frightening delirium, and the tonics inflict surprising and unexpected pain on the recipients. Prior to this film, Kosinski had mostly worked on a larger scale; his projects Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, Only the Brave, and Top Gun: Maverick all use wide-screen landscapes to their advantage. But Kosinski has a lot of fun with the freaky, clinical comforts of Spiderhead’s indoor setting, suffusing even the most drab office with potent threat.
Eventually, though, he loses the thread—Spiderhead does not have the thrill-a-minute joyous conclusion of Top Gun: Maverick (which Kosinski started making some four years ago, but was released a mere month before this film thanks to COVID delays). Saunders’s short story has a bleak and introspective ending that might not have translated well to screen. But the alternative the writers opt for is an overly simplistic bit of action. Abnesti and Jeff’s conflict escalates into an underwhelming physical showdown. It’s expected stuff. What makes the first half of Spiderhead so compelling is that it’s injected with the unexpected; a shame, then, that the inventiveness drips out as the film’s running time winds down.