Spiderhead is a dystopian thriller and dark comedy that feels like a longer episode of Black Mirror. Director Joseph Kosinski puts viewers through as many emotions as the film’s unfortunate test subjects. But the film surprisingly entertains with a funny take on free will, designed choices and obedience. Viewers will laugh and feel dread as the story shifts gears with a masterful pace. This is mostly carried by Chris Hemsworth’s charming performance and believable chemistry. Of course, Spiderhead is sure to please die-hard fans of the one Chris to rule them all.
Kosinski shows no signs of wear after wrapping up Top Gun Maverick. Instead, he returns to his sci-fi roots last seen from Tron: Legacy and Oblivion. Kosinski knows how to keep things simple with Spiderhead. Somehow, he turns George Saunders’ unsettling 2013 short story Escape From Spiderhead into a stylish romp. The film is set in a prison which also doubles as a research facility. But its convicted felons including Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are given low-security privileges. Prisoners can enjoy lounges, video games, no uniforms and their own hobbies at a cost. The lively and self-aware overseer Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) experiments using emotion-changing drugs. Without spoilers, Spiderhead finds its fun in these tests. But Jeff slowly questions the ethics and boundaries of free will.
With a bit of infectious neo-80s style, Kosinski adapts this unsettling premise into an absorbing thriller. Spiderhead doesn’t take itself too seriously from the absurdity of its experiments. The film keeps viewers reeled in with curiosity and worry. Much of the story plays around with its mysterious drugs. Eyes will stay glued with tension as characters go through an emotional roller coaster. Spiderhead stays fun to watch, since some of the tests borderline on comedy. In fact, viewers might be surprised with the right amounts of dark humour that preserve the dystopian tone. It only takes a few ounces of R-rated blood and grisly scenes to bring Spiderhead back (hard). Kosinski and the writers do an incredibly masterful job of unsettling viewers. While lighthearted moments and close knitted commentary on the justice system add to meaningful dialogue.
Somehow, Spiderhead does plenty with a small indie film sized cast. Miles Teller hits hard with a performance that demands changing faces instantly. Viewers are rewarded by learning something new about Jeff in every experiment. It’s a special way to build a character as new drugs are introduced. Teller impressively responds to each emotion with believable self-chemistry. This comes to a full head when drugs are mixed together. Jeff puts on a believable level of suffering while coping after every test. Spiderhead adds emotional heft from the repercussions of prison and exchanging free will for comfort. Teller reacts to the more questionable trials Steve Abnesti asks for. For viewers, there’s an effectively tense moment every time Jeff decides to colour outside the lines. It’s still incredibly hilarious to see Jeff’s reaction when he’s paired with the worst subjects for experiments.
Human choice is a theme Spiderhead leverages across the story. The film doesn’t break any fourth walls, but tests viewers on what they would do instead. As tests escalated with choices and stakes, Spiderhead only pulled me closer to the edge of my seat. But not all is tonally consistent in this George Saunders adaptation. The film struggles to balance dread with humour. A hilariously drawn-out sex scene is juxtaposed with Jeff’s own tragic backstory. Because Spiderhead tries to bend its sci-fi genre, plenty of dramatic moments lose impact. Again, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously – to a fault. Its climax stays tense using some funny characters. But viewers are lost in translation with a comedy that tries too hard to go full-dystopian. Spiderhead surprises even more by holding back on its violence. The R rating is justified with every reason to keep kids off Netflix. But it never goes into disturbing levels of other films like The Platform. Ultimately, viewers will have a smile over the credits and that’s okay.
The fun-to-watch experiments are reflected from Steve Abnesti’s sociopathic hunger for discovery. It’s strange to see Chris Hemsworth trade his Thor identity for an American accent and pencil. But he steals the show by giving off Spiderhead’s tone-deaf energy against a bleak backdrop. Hemsworth masks the evil scientist trope with smiles, a hipster lifestyle around inmates and imposing his infectious soundtrack over the prison PA speakers every morning. Of course, Spiderhead does more to leverage Hemsworth’s strong performance through those tense experiments. Viewers won’t know how scary Abnesti is until his patience dries up. Tense moments spark from Jeff as he starts to question Steve’s methods. Viewers are slowly torn between his generosity for the privileged prisoners. But finding some disgust as Spiderhead drops heavy-hitting truths behind his facade. Hemsworth keeps his villain role human with academic rationale and enough sympathy to trick other characters.
Like his character, Hemsworth constantly engages other characters. There’s stronger chemistry that shows with a scaled-back cast. The guise of a chill warden plays naturally with other inmates, who are allowed to roam virtually anywhere (including the test observation room). Abnesti takes care of everyone involved in his experiments. So much that viewers will be surprised at his gentle interactions with Jeff and Lizzy. Spiderhead evenly juggles the experiments with its repercussions. Much of these results come from a friendship between Steve and Jeff. While every interaction tests their relationship with some gut wrenching discoveries. Without spoilers, Jeff is still human. But starts to lose his own sanity as lines are crossed and consent is justified.
Fellow inmate Lizzy is helmed by Jurnee Smollett’s chameleon-like performance. She’s used sparingly as Jeff’s companion outside of the tests. But viewers will start to worry as they lose track of Lizzie’s emotions. Smollett not only shows someone suffering from uncontrollable joy. She also elevates Teller’s own performance as the drug doses increase. It’s bound to happen in a movie about evil pharmaceutical testing. But Lizzie’s unpredictability adds to one of Spiderhead’s best moments in the third act. She’s easily enamoured by the charismatic Steve. But it’s the intended effect which unsuspectingly puts her in danger. A shocking Black Mirror style twist only makes viewers question her purpose. But Smollett’s hard-hitting reactions sell the grim events that send Spiderhead into chaos. Lizzie is a nice fit to Jeff’s arc between the tests. The pair try to find comfort in each other after being emotionally tortured. Spiderhead didn’t have to exercise the cliche of a love interest.
Spiderhead loses its novelty near the end. Kozinski doesn’t go all-in on the original story’s bleak premise. Tonally, the film forgets about its own identity and forces an action-packed climax. As characters start to get juggled around the prison, it’s more of the same for viewers who have seen every other film set in jail. The film trades imagination for an ending that doesn’t really leave any impact as intended. It’s a disappointing way to cap off a film which delivered tense fun in most frames. Spiderhead still adds to Netflix’s more absorbing thrillers for viewers craving a twisty watch. Viewers might be hooked by the film’s experiments, but stay for its own novel approach to free will. Its idea of messing with emotions becomes a delightfully fun showcase for the cast. Hemsworth’s magnetic performance keeps the fun tests and banter together. For director Joseph Kosinski, he returns to his sci-fi roots with a clearer direction. Spiderhead warrants a sequel, only because of Kosinski’s talent for keeping audiences immersed in worlds they wouldn’t dream of being in.
Spiderhead releases on Netflix on June 17, 2022