Spiderhead 2022 Movie Review
Sometime in the not too distant future, Jeff (Miles Teller) is a man serving time for manslaughter from driving under the influence. As part of deal to stay out of standard prisons, Jeff is serving his time at correctional facility Spiderhead where he’s afforded better living conditions and privileges in exchange for testing experimental pharmaceutical compounds administered and controlled through a device called a Mobipak grafted to the small of the back. As Steve Abnesti (Christ Hemsworth) administers the tests on the prison population eliciting responses from prisoners ranging from extreme bliss to psychological pain, it soon becomes apparent to Jeff that Spiderhead is not what it seems.
Spiderhead is an adaptation of the short story Escape From Spiderhead by George Suanders that was first published in The New Yorker in 2010. A film adaptation of the story was setup by Netflix with Deadpool and Zombieland writing team Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick adapting the material, and Joseph Kosinski fresh off Top Gun: Maverick set to direct (which due to Covid related delays finds Spiderhead releasing mere weeks after Top Gun: Maverick). The movie presents a high concept pitch with a prison with no bars or armed guards controlled strictly through a pharmaceutical regimen, but despite the ambition of the movie it often feels at odds with itself and does often feel like it’s stretched from a shorter work.
To start off on a positive note, Chris Hemsworth does really well in an against type performance playing the head of Spiderhead, Steve Abnesti. Hemsworth’s natural charisma has always made him a charming personality, and its put to good use here as his character comes off as something of a “benevolent dictator” who gives you comfort and pleasure but also periodically reminds you he has a knife to your throat. The setting of Spiderhead is also quite unique with the facility having both sterile halls and invasive surveillance that’s also counter-balanced by the above average living conditions that look almost resort like. Kosinki makes the film very visually interesting with the lab scenes where Abnesti adjusts his prisoners Mobipaks to illicit responses like sexual arousal or fits of laughter at nothing being darkly comedic and also quite unnerving.
Unfortunately while Spiderhead seems like it has aspirations of trying to be somewhere on the same level as Ex Machina or THX 1138, the movie reminded me less of those films with its substance and instead reminded me of the thematic weight of early 90s sci-fi genre films like Fortress or Freejack. The movie really isn’t all that interested in discussing the ramifications of the technology it’s dealing with in the movie on either its characters or society at large and at its core is pretty much just a standard “escape” film with Abnesti losing a lot of his initial appeal as an antagonist when we learn his true motivations. I’ve been a fan of Miles Teller since The Spectacular Now, but his role as Jeff didn’t really have all that much meat to it. A lot of the prisoners are very nebulously defined with not much in the way of character building scenes given to us and because we never really new these characters outside the facility a lot of the scenes where Abnesti plays with their brain chemistry don’t quite impact the way the film wanted. The movie is also tonally inconsistent as it will often transition from the cold sterile atmosphere you expect from a film of this ilk, to more outlandish scenes involving a self-aware soundtrack that feel very much inspired by scenes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick did in their Deadpool and Zombieland films, or scatological and sexual humor that feels out of place with this movie’s narrative.
I was really intrigued by Spiderhead’s premise and unfortunately I didn’t feel like it was delivered on. That’s not to say I didn’t like individual elements of the movie. The production design looks great, there’s a solid enough foundation for examining pharmaceuticals in society, and Chris Hemsworth is good as the antagonist in an against type performance. But the movie never really dives into the themes and ideas it presents and instead takes the easy way out largely abandoning any deep dives on its ideas and instead goes for a standard escape plot. If you’re only looking for a nice looking genre film you’ll get your money’s worth, but for me I felt like I was promised Ex Machina and delivered Fortress.