What was Netflix thinking? Its new film Spiderhead has all the bearings of a sci-fi satire, complete with Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett, and Top Gun: Maverick’s Miles Teller and director Joseph Kosinski. Clearly trying to cash in on the success of the aviation sequel, the film suffers from identity issues, not knowing if it is a comedic morality tale or a sci-fi thriller. Instead, Spiderhead comes off as a tedious and unfeeling mess.
Based on George Saunders’ Escape From Spiderhead, the film takes place on a mysterious island where the titular futuristic and state-of-the-art prison is located. Instead of crappy food and orange jumpsuits, the prisoners have lowlighting, homemade meals, and their own bedrooms in exchange for their participation in a trial for a mood-altering drug. Teller plays Jeff, a man convicted of manslaughter, just trying to get through the day as he participates in these experiments that alter his every emotion from fear, happiness, and sex drive.
Keeping him sane is Lizzy (Smollett), a fairly new prisoner to Spiderhead, whose daily chore is making snacks. She has not had the opportunity to try out these new drugs much to her chagrin. In control of everything is the seemingly understanding Steve Abnesti, the pharmaceutical representative and scientist who not only administers these drugs but controls the subjects’ food, media intake, and just about everything else.
Hemsworth clearly takes delight in playing Abnesti, a departure from the morally good archetype he is known for. He is slightly annoying as tinge-condescending know-it-all scientist without any compassion but he is supposed to be. While a lot of his choices are obvious, Hemsworth is at least having fun with his role.
Teller seems to be sleep-walking through his performance as Jeff. His chemistry with Smollett is non-existent and his own range of emotion is lacking. Nothing is subtle or nuanced just flat. Smollett is slightly better as she tries to connect to Teller, but both of their performances don’t belong in Kosinski’s version of this movie.
Like Top Gun: Maverick, Kosinski utilizes a lot of music to tell this story including Hall & Oats’ “You Make My Dreams” and Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science”. A lot of the song selection is ‘80s based and feels more cliche than the refreshing twist it wants to be. Kosinski has trouble balancing the comedic and dramatic elements of Rhett Reese’s and Paul Wernick’s script. The more tragic moments of Jeff’s backstory, told through flashbacks, don’t have any emotional weight to them, bringing more melodrama to the overstuffed plot.
Spiderhead is not the biting social satire and morality tale it wants to be. The best thing going for it is Hemsworth’s performance who clearly thinks he’s in a better movie than he is. Instead, Kosinski’s sixth feature feels like a bunch of ideas thrown together on-screen, unable to capture the nuance of Saunder’s original work.