Based on The New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, psychological thriller “Spiderhead” is a huge disappointment. The source material is poorly translated to the screen by director Joseph Kosinski and despite an interesting premise and talented cast, this Netflix movie teeters on the edge of being completely unwatchable.
Visionary warden Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) runs a state-of-the-art penitentiary where resident prisoners go about their daily routines without cells or bars. All of the inmates in his care, including Jeff (Miles Teller), have volunteered to be incarcerated there, agreeing to participate in a behavior-altering drug experiment in exchange for commuted sentences. The prisoners wear a surgically attached device that administers dosages of medications that control emotional responses about everything from anger to the ability to love, with many test subjects becoming incapable of making rational decisions when the drugs hit their veins. They’re human guinea pigs with only a fraction of free will.
The idea of a mad scientist experimenting on a prison population with the goal of absolutely obedience is fascinating on its surface. If people always do as they’re told, acting as they should at not as they desire, humans may very well be capable of achieving world peace. While there are some thought-provoking themes like these at play, neither the story nor the movie is very compelling. The more interesting aspects of the narrative that are raised, like the questions of morality and the definition of right and wrong, are hurriedly glossed over in favor of an endless pop music soundtrack, sex scenes, and shocking violence. The end result is a film that’s neither smart nor sophisticated.
Making matters worse is that the movie feels grossly miscast. Teller and Hemsworth turn in acceptable performances, but neither exudes much star power. Even the supporting cast (Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio) is equally unappealing. The script (adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) is lifeless and dull, and the dialogue uninspired.
“Spiderhead” is too abstract and obtuse to gain much momentum. By the time the best parts of the story kick in, it’s too late — the audience has already been lost. This is a rough film that’s poorly written, acted, and directed. Your time is better spent elsewhere.