Spiderhead: Blunt and bound up in convention
Netflix movie Spiderhead, starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, has all the ingredients to rank among top-tier dystopian sci-fi — at least on paper.
The mark of good science fiction is something that’s thought-provoking, entwining mystery and credible predictions about our future in such a way that it draws the audience in and leads to self-reflection about ourselves and our world.
On paper, Netflix’s Spiderhead has all the ingredients to rank among this kind of top-tier sci-fi — a dark, edgy and insightful film that lingers in the mind, and gets played over and over, long after viewing.
Based on a short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead, directed by Joseph Kosinski, is set in a sunny near-future dystopia. In exchange for greater freedoms at tropical island institution Spiderhead, prisoners have volunteered themselves as pharmaceutical guinea pigs. Every day they are subjected to mind-altering drugs by eccentric scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his sidekick Mark (Mark Paguio). Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are just two of the inmates who have accepted this deal, but as Steve’s experiments become more extreme, Jeff grows suspicious about what is really going on.
This is a rich scenario to explore, and with Joseph Kosinski, fresh off his Top Gun: Maverick success, behind the camera, Spiderhead seems primed for success. Except the film does little with its solid foundation. It’s an oddly unambitious and constrained effort, keeping its focus on Jeff, oddball Steve, and Lizzy, in that order of importance.
Spiderhead is so micro-focused, in fact, that the far more intriguing macro is neglected. The only topic explored in any depth is the guilt that could drive people to accept unregulated experimentation as a punishment. Again, though, that is individual-focused. Presumably, the audience is supposed to be so invested in these characters that they don’t ask the bigger questions. Viewers are encouraged to just follow an obviously frayed plot thread to the big reveal.
In reaching that point, however, anyone with open eyes will recognise the missed opportunities for something “more.” Considering how well Orange is the New Black spotlighted the perils of prison privatisation, Spiderhead doesn’t even attempt to comment on the issue. Criminally, it also doesn’t delve into the terrifying concept of instant mood control via phone app. If everyone around you can be manipulated, can you trust them? Can you trust your own feelings and response to situations? Spiderhead is paranoia free, and all very civilised. Steve keeps his experiments in his test chambers.
To be fair, Spiderhead looks great thanks to a striking production design. Performances are also strong, with the film’s stars given an opportunity to act against type. Smollett doesn’t have much to do, but Teller makes for an empathetic everyman. Hemsworth, who co-produced the film, is having the most fun of all, as the Big Pharma version of a genius tech bro addicted to drinking his own Kool-Aid (literally). Even here, though, Spiderhead seems afraid to push further into darkness; to grapple with the complexity of who these people are, and what they’ve done. At one point, Steve comments that beautiful people get away with too much, and Spiderhead, as a whole, seems content to likewise coast on its appearance.
The end result is a movie that is frustratingly superficial. It skims bigger issues, refuses to provide greater societal context for the drug studies, and wilfully ignores plot holes and weaknesses in character motivations as it scuttles to a conventional (and largely nonsense) feel-good ending. Even though there is a lot lurking in the shadows, Spiderhead stays safely in the light.
While it may snare the attention of science fiction fans, Spiderhead is a missed opportunity. Evidently afraid to explore the complex issues that sit at its core, the end result is Hollywood conventional — superficial, safe and simplistic. DM/ ML
Daily Maverick © All rights reserved