Spiderhead Review: Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller SHINE in this delightfully bizarre prison drama
Spiderhead combines intriguing themes with good performances from the cast to create a compelling, albeit shallow, sci-fi thriller.
Spiderhead Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
Spiderhead Director: Joseph Kosinski
Spiderhead Streaming Platform: Netflix
Spiderhead Stars: 3/5
Spiderhead is now available on Netflix, with a cast that includes Marvel and DC icons Chris Hemsworth (Thor), who also produced, and Jurnee Smollett (Birds of Prey). Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski also reunites with Miles Teller. The cast is limited, and the picture is more about language than action, but it's a lively, well-shot genre film that's more intellectual than you'd anticipate. It allows actor Chris Hemsworth to expand away from his action hero persona and serves as a terrific star vehicle for Kosinski regular Miles Teller.
Teller plays Jeff, a convict serving his term at the Spiderhead facility, where prison head Steve Abneti (Hemsworth) researches medications meant to influence human behaviour. The prisoners participate in the tests under the belief that their efforts would benefit society in the long term, but Jeff has his doubts about what's going on. Jeff, becoming disillusioned with the scheme, strives to break free from Steve and flee Spiderhead. Spiderhead begins in a futuristic white chamber, where a guy called Ray (Stephen Tongun) is delivered basic jokes and puns via a microphone from behind a two-way mirror by Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Ray laughs, probably a bit harder than you'd expect, but when the disembodied voices exchange their joke book for facts about genocide, he bursts out laughing. This strange beginning, revealed to be an experiment for a laughing medicine, transports us to the Spiderhead, a prison testing facility on a beautiful, remote island where charismatic tech leader Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) executes unique drug experiments with the help of his devoted aide, Mark (Mark Paguio). Spiderhead, on the other hand, is not your typical prison.
It's a type of upgrade in that convicted criminals who join up are moved from gen-pop and have the choice of living in an open-door community (although one with limited sunlight), with huge rooms, shared living areas, and fully equipped kitchens. It resembles a Norwegian jail more than an American one, yet what distinguishes it as unmistakably American is its shameless commercial role. The detained bodies of the prison are at the mercy of an anonymous, unidentified corporate board, which uses them to test different mood-altering chemicals. These medications are administered to them via small cartridges that are permanently attached to their lower backs and are managed by an app on Steve's smartphone. Where things get murky is that no experiment can be carried out without the convicts' approval, yet the film appears to question, loudly and early on, how voluntary their choices really are? If Abnesti needs them to articulate what they're thinking, he raises the dosage (via a smartphone app) on "Verbaluce."
One positive side effect of "Spiderhead" is that the performances have their own potency, but only when given a certain dose. Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, who plays Jeff and Lizzie, respectively, provide assured performances as the primary convicts. Since both are in jail for heinous acts of homicide, the institution has offered them a shot at self-forgiveness. It's amusing, but also instructive, how the movie's overdose sequences, these simulations they bring to life by screaming, writhing on the sofa, and sometimes simulating suicide, leave you cold. The real process of Abnesti twisting them in various directions becomes almost a conceit of a film that is straining its power, its hazy purpose for being. While this all seems like the makings of a blockbuster action movie, Kosinski keeps the tale remarkably insular and confined, never leaving the confines of the Spiderhead facility. We, like these convicts, are primarily trapped behind these walls, with just the odd view of the outside world. But this size is precisely what Spiderhead requires, enabling the narrative to revel in the intrinsic oddity of the notion without ever being too large for the story's good.
However, what makes Spiderhead so enjoyable is a terrific blend of danger and absurdity, best shown by Hemsworth's amazing acting. In truth, Hemsworth has never been better as Steve Abnesti, a yacht rock-loving scientist who laughs with his inmates and coworker Verlaine (Mark Paguio) but can turn dark and unexpected at a moment's notice. Hemsworth is having a great time here, dancing to Roxy Music and getting high on his own supply. While the various twists and turns make for entertaining watching at first, the plot eventually gets swamped by explanation, in a way that settles its burning questions much too neatly. Eventually, disclosures become more like flicked switches than incremental realizations, and emotional reckonings become outward rather than contemplative — all on the way to an action-packed final act that can't quite reconcile the story's last, ill-conceived tonal swing.
To sum up, Spiderhead is a well-written film by Deadpool creators Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Underneath the aesthetic lies a strong message about how, as humans, we're better than our biggest errors, even if it's a notion that our increasingly volatile modern culture doesn't always accept. Teller and Smollett are endearing as the characters, both of whom have done horrible things they really regret, and by the time the finale arrives, it's easy to pull for them to be given another opportunity. Meanwhile, Hemsworth is having a great time eating the scenery. There's little action for him in this one, save for a short brawl with Teller at the conclusion, but it's not that type of film. Spiderhead enables him to expand, and it all adds up to an engaging little programmer that's ideal for watching on Netflix.
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