Principal Cast : Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich, BeBe Bettencourt, Mark Paguio, Sam Delich, Joey Vieira, Daniel Reader, Ron Smyck, Stephen Tongun, Nathan Jones.
Synopsis: In the near future, convicts are offered the chance to volunteer as medical subjects to shorten their sentence. One such subject for a new drug capable of generating feelings of love begins questioning the reality of his emotions.
If you can believe it, director Joseph Kosinski went and shot an entire whole other movie between the post-production of Top Gun: Maverick and the release of Top Gun: Maverick. Obviously, Maverick’s continued release delay during the Covid19 pandemic was entirely to blame, but shooting an entirely separate film in the meantime is no mean feat. Spiderhead, the progeny of Kosinski’s ubiquitous crisp direction and a 2010 short story by George Sanders, is a halfway decent potboiler sci-fi held together by a solid leading performance from Miles Teller and the wildly off-kilter casting of Chris Hemsworth underlining an intriguing premise around free will and paying one’s debt to society. It’s stylish and definitely a slow-burn, and it’s not quite as satisfying as it endeavours to be, but for a low-budget mid-tier genre entry you really can’t go wrong.
Plot synopsis courtesy Wikipedia: “Spiderhead” is a state-of-the-art penitentiary experimenting with the effects of research chemicals. The test subjects, technically prisoners of the state, are volunteers for the project aiming to reduce their sentence time. The program is overseen by the sympathetic and hospitable Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), along with his assistant, Mark Verlaine (Mark Paguio). The prisoners have their own rooms, do chores, and are free to roam without guard supervision. The subjects go through daily test runs of various drugs, all of which alter their emotions and their perceptions of their surroundings. Inmate Jeff (Miles Teller), still reeling from having killed his friend whilst drunk driving, is given N-40, a “love drug”, which distorts his senses and drives him to have sex with two of his fellow inmates. Jess also harbours feelings for a fellow inmate, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), with whom he forms a bond. Inevitably, the strains on the facility’s interpersonal relationships is tested as the experiments start to go awry, and all Steve’s good intentions start to unravel.
Kosinski’s Spiderhead plays like a JJ Abrams mystery box, in that the further along it goes the more surprises and revelations are… well, revealed. To its benefit the film aims higher than the restricted setting and headscratching dialogue might elicit, with both Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett extricating minute elements of emotional weight from what could, in lesser hands, be generic and rather one-note characters. It’s the kind of film where just when you think you know how it’s going to go, Kosinski and screenwriters Rhett Reese (Zombieland, 6 Underground) and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Life) unwinding the tragic backstory for the variety of Spiderhead facility inhabitants slowly, teasing out a variety of clues and reveals that work depending on your susceptibility for the suspension of disbelief. I would argue the premise is almost too cerebrally unbelievable to work well – when I think of prison films, I think of Shawshank or Lock Up but not some utopian paradise – but competent performances elevate the thin idea with genuine emotional heft. Whether you completely buy into the idea of chemicals altering the brain to a degree people would just randomly screw a complete stranger, or have their blood boil with unquenchable rage, or whether you think it’s all pie-in-the-sky stuff and write it off as pure fantasy, there’s no denying the allure of the notion proposed by Hemsworth’s Abnesti – that human emotion can be manipulated to such a degree by chemicals – as a sci-fi trope not all that far removed from reality.
Among the film’s key positives is the performance of Miles Teller, who shines among the ensemble here, and Jurnee Smollett, with whom Teller has a nice screen chemistry as an indentured odd-couple each with their own personal darkness and torments. Teller’s Jeff is the moral center of the film, being a man serving his time for a terrible choice and consequences, and resigned to that fact despite the degradation he has allowed himself to be subjected to. So too Smollett’s Lizzy, who harbours a maternal secret that, in lesser hands, would feel too close to home with recency bias being what it is. The supporting work of Mark Verlaine, as Hemsworth’s research offsider, is amenable if limited to continual frowns, scowls and the gradual realization that he may be one of the bad guys. Another significant positive is Kosinski’s direction of the film, particularly in relation to the small-scale, constricted scope of the Spiderhead facility, nestled artificially on the edge of an Australian coastline somewhere. The photography, editing and production design on Spiderhead is exemplary – noting Kosinski’s regular DP Claudio Miranda’s work is suitably relaxing in keeping with the psy-ops nature of the screenplay – and it all gives the film a bump in terms of a sense of the exotic or futuristic.
On the downside: let’s talk about Chris. Hemsworth’s role as Thor in the MCU has given him considerable box-office status, yet the poor dude has been unable to find a leading-role film where he’s had much success. The vast majority of his non-Marvel films have been decidedly underwhelming – Black Hat, In The Heart Of The Sea, Men in Black: International and Extraction have all met with mediocre reviews and less-than-stellar box office – and it’s a shame that Spiderhead follows a similar pathway. Hemsworth feels uncomfortably miscast here, playing the duplicitous, smarmy, enthusiastic Abnesti, with the actor’s natural comedic charm at odds with the sly nature of the character’s complexity. It also doesn’t help that at one point both Hemsworth and Teller trade blows in a fight sequence, with the Thor-bulked star easily outmatching the smaller statured Whiplash actor and yet still coming off second best. I found myself chuckling at this. Hemsworth isn’t a bad actor, far from it, but the role of Abnesti feels more suited to a less physically imposing and impossibly gorgeous human specimen, and the actor’s performance style doesn’t quite jibe with the verbose and intellectual demands of the screenplay. He just doesn’t… fit, somehow.
Spiderhead offers minimalistic sci-fi examination of some heady human themes, and to a point does it quite well. The film won’t be for everyone, though, so keep in mind that this isn’t some explosion-centric action genre piece in keeping with the rest of Kosinski and Hemsworth’s filmography. To most, it’ll be a once-er – watch once and you’re done – and that’s perfectly fine. Spiderhead doesn’t always live up to its own potential but its hardly a failure, instead allowing a slow-cooked marinade of human sorrow bury itself into your psyche as you confront the conflict between free will and total control.