One of the oddities of the delays the pandemic created in Hollywood is actors and filmmakers having multiple projects come out close together. Director Joseph Kosinski just released the mega-blockbuster Top Gun: Maverick, which finished principal photography in 2019, and he’s back a mere three weeks later with the Netflix movie Spiderhead, starring one of Maverick’s lead actors, Miles Teller.
This film is about as far away from that action-packed film as you can get, as it takes place at a prison/research center called Spiderhead, where Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) leads a program running experiments on inmates who are incarcerated for everything from drunken driving manslaughter to genocide. The remote prison has very minimal security, with prisoners like Jeff (Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) able to roam freely throughout the complex.
In exchange for this “freedom,” however, they must agree to be dosed with experimental serums via a device implanted in their lower backs. Serums include Verbaluce (which makes people say things they’d normally hold back), Luvactin (makes them automatically attracted to someone else), Laffodil (makes them laugh, even if at inappropriate things), and more. But there are also serums with more sinister effects, leading to a revolt among certain prisoners.
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, the team behind the Deadpool series and other films, the film has an intriguing premise, but strangely doesn’t do a lot with it. They present one part of the story as somewhat of a mystery, but anyone paying even halfway attention will know the answer long before they actually reveal it. The rest of the film is a slow march toward the event that’s abundantly clear will happen.
Aside from the patently obvious storytelling, the filmmakers don’t do a great job of explaining the purpose of the experiments or how the prisoners were chosen to come there in the first place. Everyone there has some kind of killing on their record, but it’s odd to think that they “deserve” to be subjected to unregulated drugs, especially when the deaths range from accidental to malicious.
The film’s attempts at establishing a romance between Jeff and Lizzy feels a bit forced, although the actors’ chemistry makes up for this. The movie does have a fun, if incongruous, soundtrack, with lots of ’70s and ’80s songs like “She Blinded Me with Science,” “You Make My Dreams (Come True),” “I’ll Take You There,” “More Than This,” and “Crazy Love.” The songs not fitting the scenes to which they’re attached stimulates the story in a way that the actual plot never does.
Befitting the power divide between their characters, Hemsworth enjoys himself a lot more than anyone else in the film. As he’s shown as Thor, Hemsworth knows how to project both strength and ebullience, and he’s the biggest reason the film works as much as it does. There’s nothing compelling about the story arcs for Teller or Smollett’s character, leaving them with little to add to the film overall.
Spiderhead is based on a short story that originally appeared in The New Yorker, which is known for its intellectual material, but the movie version may have been dumbed down a little too much for mass audiences. It might make for slightly diversionary home viewing, but anyone hoping for anything more than that should look elsewhere.
Spiderhead debuts on Netflix on June 17.