By Noah Gittell
I wish “Spiderhead” had been an independent film with a $5 million budget made by smart and ingenuitive people, not by a streaming service dedicated to making it as uninteresting as possible. It would have been easy to do right. The film, which unfurls in an island facility where volunteer prisoners test wonder drugs for a pharmaceutical company, mostly takes place in one setting, has just a handful of characters, and is driven by such a delectable premise that it wouldn’t even have needed well-paid movie stars to make it work. If it were made with more creative freedom, it might have been great. Instead, it is incarcerated at Netflix, the streaming giant that tends to squander even the most tantalizing of premises.
The experiments in question, conducted by the handsome and charismatic Dr. Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), test groundbreaking drugs that stimulate feelings of love, terror, or fear in the subjects. Why would they volunteer for such a discombobulating experience? It’s better than real jail. At the Spiderhead facility, the prisoners, most of whom have committed nonviolent crimes, have their own rooms and a relatively easy work detail. There are no locks on the doors, and they get to socialize freely. It’s not a bad gig, all things considered. They occasionally get to feel the loving embrace of a partner, even if the sentiment is chemically induced, while terror and fear is a constant either way. Spiderhead is the lesser evil.
Based on a 2010 short story by George Saunders, the film follows Jeff (Miles Teller), as he endures the highs and lows of the Spiderhead experience and eventually grows disillusioned with his captors. Understanding that viewers will immediately recognize the pharmaceutical company experimenting on humans is probably up to no good, the film wisely foregoes the conventions of suspense and instead focuses on the power dynamics between Jeff and Abnesti, who forge an uneasy friendship, as well as Jeff’s burgeoning romance with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a friendly fellow inmate.
Questions of love, forgiveness, and obedience are raised, and while these ideas are admirably mounted, they aren’t exactly explored. The film moves so briskly through its house of chemical horrors that there’s no time for character development, and it relies on its actors to fill in the blanks.
It’s an old-fashioned movie star vehicle, anchored by two men of the moment. Teller, currently enjoying a career boost with the high-flying success of “Top Gun: Maverick”, seems to think Jeff is the stoic hero of “Spiderhead”, instead of the flawed everyman he’s written as. To his credit, Teller has easy appeal, but it seems incidental. He’s not quite as charming as he thinks he is — and the mini-mullet he sports here is a major stumbling block to likeability — but his pose of coolness is just transparent enough to be endearing, and his performance provides a serviceable anchor for the plot’s twists and turns.
The biggest draw here is Hemsworth, and not just because of his super-heroic pedigree (his “Thor: Love and Thunder” releases next week). It’s what he does with it that matters. Dr. Abnesti is a vivid comic creation, a whirlwind of false humility and passive-aggression. He’s a friendly guy but in a way that lets you know he holds all the cards, like a boss trying to pose as his employees’ equal. Abnesti sees himself as a savior of the human race and Hemsworth is masterful in revealing both the image Abnesti is selling and the cracks in his facade. It’s a performance that reminds me of what Chris Evans, another slumming superhero, did in 2019’s “Knives Out”, in which he uses his heroic persona as a baseline, and then gleefully subverts it.
It’s an indelible performance, but the film it’s in service of is rarely worth the effort. Director Joseph Kominski (who also helmed “Top Gun: Maverick”) is a little too delighted in the contours of his prison walls to fully explore its people, an ironic flaw for a film that claims to say something meaningful about the incarceration state. Instead, “Spiderhead” is content to glide along its smooth, shiny surfaces. The main character is really the building itself, which facilitates much of the plot and reveals Abnesti’s intent in its clever architecture. Kominski makes great use of its two-way mirrors and video monitors, keeping the viewer visually engaged at all times and painting a subtle portrait of the oppression of constant surveillance.
But the more you look, the less it all matters. “Spiderhead” has that Netflix sheen, common to their original films like “Red Notice” or “The Adam Project”, that makes everything look a little fake, or at least ephemeral. Not at all like a real movie. The vision is seductive, but there is no sense of reality underpinning it, no feeling that it was created by human beings who live in our world. I guess Netflix is a lot like Spiderhead, a place that robs you of your soul, a prison for which filmmakers and viewers alike volunteer because it’s just a little more comfortable than the real world.