3 out of 5 stars

Perhaps Chris Hemsworth’s brief moments in the cockpit of a flying boat are a tongue-in-cheek nod to Joseph Kosinski’s other, bigger, recent release… but Spiderhead isn’t going to be easily confused with Top Gun: Maverick (2022).

Spiderhead is a small film in nearly every way, set almost entirely within the confines of a prison facility with perhaps a few dozen inmates and a skeleton staff. Nothing is lavish except the concept of an apparently near-future world where mind-altering pharmaceuticals can make people eloquent, fall in love, turn suicidal, make one unquestioningly follow orders, or “make people afraid of things that are bad for them… like thinking too much.”

What Spiderhead depicts when these prisoners take these drugs might as well be the clinical trials for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, incorporating a touch of Stanley Milgram’s notorious 1960s obedience experiment. But there are echoes of A Clockwork Orange (1971) too, while the stylish production design by Jeremy Hindle and Claudio Miranda’s cinemaphotography is often reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) with their big unbroken fields of colour and highly contrasting objects…

A man sits in a yellow armchair against a white wall, a yellow flower alongside him; in a later scene there are two yellow armchairs and an orange flower, and that counts as a major change by Spiderhead’s standards, because while the lives of this island jail’s prisoners are luxurious, they have virtually no contact with the outside world and apparently few activities other than accepting chemicals into their bloodstreams so that Abnesti (Hemsworth) and his sidekick Verlaine (Mark Paguio) can study their effects.

The film concentrates on two of the prisoners, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), both of whom are incarcerated for crimes that if not victimless were certainly not intentional. This is rather a cop-out—it’s as if the screenwriters didn’t dare ask us to identify with, or even see as a victim, someone who had committed an act of real evil—and is one of several key respects in which the movie differs from its source, George Saunders’ 2010 story “Escape from Spiderhead”, published in The New Yorker.

Spiderhead is also less specific about location (the short story is explicitly set in New York State, while Kosinski’s version could perhaps be in the Pacific Northwest and could also be in Australia, where it was filmed). It introduces, for no obvious reason, a mysterious character called “shit-finger” who’s been vandalising the prison’s toilets. And, most importantly and damagingly, it completely abandons Saunders’s unexpected and poetic ending, instead taking a misjudged turn toward flippancy in the last quarter-hour.

That strange decision aside, Spiderhead is straightforward and even rather predictable in narrative terms. Jeff, along with others, participates in trials of Abnesti’s drugs (which have wonderful names like Verbaluce, Honest-Ease, and the dreadful Darkenfloxx). “What you want is redemption, and this how you’re going to find it,” Abnesti reassures him, at the same time as rhapsodising about their potential: curing loneliness through chemistry would, he says, be as big a win for global happiness as destroying all the world’s cigarettes. (This is one of several vivid lines which are original to the movie, though others come straight from Saunders’ story.)

Then one of the trials has a terrible result; Jeff, hitherto compliant, becomes more resistant to Abnesti’s authority; he grows close to Lizzy; and at last he discovers two secrets Abnesti has been hiding, one of which will be no surprise to the audience at all, the other of which is rather clever and underlines the Brave New World allusions.

Not everything in the movie works. It can be a little clunky in making its points. After the trial that goes wrong, Abnesti claps Jeff on the shoulder, saying “it’s not our fault” and leaving a bloody handprint. Repeated shots of a turtle in a tiny aquarium are over-obvious references to imprisonment. Narratively, far too much depends on a conveniently dropped set of keys, and the descent into comedy at the end—after 90-minutes in which the only humorous touches have been mild and occasional—comes close to derailing the entire thing.

But much about it does work, all the same. Despite its small cast, its limited range of settings (almost all interiors), and its minimal physical action, Spiderhead never feels stagey or excessively wordy. The drug-test scenes, in particular, are well done and often startling. At the opening, an inmate—Stephen Tongun’s Ray—has been given a substance that induces hilarity, and moves easily from laughing at a series of bad jokes to guffawing at the Rwandan genocide. 

Hemsworth, who’s more than capable of delivering an interesting performance (see: 12 Strong) when he’s not lumbered with a stereotyped role (see: Extraction), is perfectly cast as Abnesti and is by far the most interesting of the central characters. A man whose insistent friendliness—he hates being called “Mr Abnesti”—never fully conceals the tetchiness and even threat beneath. We don’t know quite how far to trust him and neither does his inmates.

Meanwhile, Smollett (Lovecraft Country) is believably human as Lizzy, Paguio makes Verlaine an ambivalent scientist who we want to learn more about, and Teller resists the temptation to overdo Jeff’s scepticism about the drug project and his guilt about his past. (Both he and Charles Parnell, who has a small role here, also appear in Top Gun: Maverick.) Joseph Trapanese’s original score is accompanied by a witty selection of songs, from Roxy Music’s “More Than This” to Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.”

In the end, the answer that Spiderhead gives to its central question—is happiness worth having if it means losing our individuality?—will shock no one. Jeff and Lizzy (and by extension all of us), it suggests, will find redemption not by chemically erasing their regret but by learning to live with it.

On the way to that conventionally affirming conclusion, though, even if Spiderhead often gives the impression of bringing up intriguing ideas and not quite following them through, it does take enough unanticipated turns to hold the attention. It’s just a shame about that silly ending.


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Cast & Crew

director: Joseph Kosinski.
writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (based on the short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead’ by George Saunders).
starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich & Mark Paguio.