Did you know there’s a movie from the director of Top Gun: Maverick and the writers of Deadpool starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller opening this weekend? Considering that its pedigree includes two guys from the summer’s first blockbuster and the star of the summer’s next blockbuster (Thor: Love And Thunder) you’d think Spiderhead would be huge news. Instead, it’s opening quietly on Netflix, flying further under the radar than one of Maverick’s experimental planes.
Joseph Kosinski’s career has included both middling “event movies” like Tron: Legacy and underrated crowdpleasers like Oblivion and Only The Brave, and he always seems like he’s right on the cusp of a true masterpiece, his Boogie Nights or his Die Hard. That may still be true, but it’s not going to be Spiderhead, which feels like an all-too-perfect metaphor for not-quite-realized potential.
Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, best known as the writers of the Deadpool franchise, adapt a 2010 short story George Saunders wrote for the New Yorker about the titular tropical prison, where a glad-handing scientist (Steve Abnesti, played by Chris Hemsworth) gives the inmates greater freedom and privileges in exchange for being able to experiment on them with mood-altering drugs. It’s a cool premise, not to mention picturesque (Kosinski having more than proved his ability to shoot a pretty picture), and Chris Hemsworth’s oddly terrible uncanny valley American accent, which sounds a bit like a Midwestern dork trying to sell you a vacuum over the phone, even sort of fits this role. He’s a guy you want to like but can’t quite trust. Even his looks feel suspect. He’s handsome, sure, but what kind of personality defect produces someone that handsome?
Yet the movie itself ends up feeling like Ex Machina without the intellectual rigor. It’s a feathered fish that retains George Saunders’ “New Yorker clever” naming conventions — mood drugs named Verbaluce, Laffodil, and worst of all, DarkenFloxx — tacks on Wernick/Reese’s penchant for Reddit-cute banter, and mixes in blockbuster action and Hollywood love tropes at random. All with a massive music budget set to needle drops like “She Blinded Me With Science” and Hall and Oates’ “You Make My Dreams,” which feel like an attempt to recreate Starlord’s mixtapes from Guardians Of The Galaxy but less narrative justification.
Miles Teller, who works with Kosinski a lot and always seems to manage the trick of being less obnoxious than you expect him to be, plays Jeff, an inmate doing a stint for manslaughter stemming from a drunk driving incident. We see the incident a few times in flashbacks, Jeff leaving a rural bonfire party in his seventies muscle car before wrapping it around a tree. It’s hard to tell when exactly the story takes place, or where, which all seems part of a deliberate plan on Kosinski’s part — to set Spiderhead outside of recognizable time or place in this sort of shiny hypercapitalist parallel universe. The choice makes sense in theory, but in execution it gives us so little to hold onto that it’s practically screaming for some kind of identifying detail. We might not need to know where or when this story takes place, but what is this world and how does it work?
Skipping expository dialogue is a great thing when you’ve achieved audience buy-in, but Kosinski and Co. never quite have that before they’re onto the next thing. Jeff is in love with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett — yes, Jussie’s sister), which is complicated by him occasionally being made to have sex with other inmates with the help of Steve’s horny drugs™ — which Steven often uses on pairs of inmates, like a flesh-and-blood-version of kid making his GI Joes have sex with a Barbie while he watches behind one-way glass. I’d love to see the David Cronenberg version of this movie.
Throughout the film, there’s this undercurrent of menace, where everyone seems to acknowledge that Steve is the Worst Person In The World, which feels like a setup for some deeper exploration of free will or morality that never comes. Spiderhead can’t articulate why it exists so it instead relies on unexamined ideas of good and evil that make it feel oddly Victorian.
The angrier Jeff gets at Steve, and the more wickedly Steve delivers the “we’re not so different, you and I” speech, the more you realize that Spiderhead doesn’t actually have any bigger ideas. When Lizzy begins to reveal her past, it feels like the film desperately grasping towards any type of depth rather than a new wrinkle about a fully fleshed character.
With nothing much to say about Steve beyond “he’s toying with people’s lives!” (zzzz), Spiderhead attempts to fall back on the Jeff-Lizzy love story to anchor it, but the true nature of their relationship is too vaguely sketched to be The Thing That We Root For. At one point they kiss, and it’s delivered as if this is the first time, even though they’ve already been acting like boyfriend-girlfriend for at least 45 minutes of screen time by that point.
The film morphs into an action thriller in the final act, but by then I’d lost interest. It didn’t feel thrilling, it felt like a way to bring some resolution to a story that never quite finds its reason for existing. You can feel them scrambling. Maybe a few more sunny vistas? A few more boppin’ needle drops? A valiant effort, but no. Sometimes a movie just doesn’t quite work, which is part of what makes the ones that do feel so magical. Maybe it just needed more jets?