For decades, sci-fi has helped send warning signs to mass audiences. The genre lends itself to exploring the natural conclusion of emerging phenomena in our world. This allegorical approach helped The Twilight Zone become a sensation while paving the way for generations of stories to follow in its footsteps. Director Joseph Kosinski looks to recreate a warning sign in Spiderhead, a new film starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller on Netflix. Unfortunately, while the film offers fun moments, the messages and themes become wrapped up in tired tropes.
Based on a short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead follows Jeff (Teller) as he tests intravenous drugs as part of his prison sentence. The lead scientist Abnesti (Hemsworth), struck a deal with the government for a new kind of prison. Rather than serving their sentence in traditional jail cells, prisoners live in a house-arrest situation, freely roaming the halls and interacting with their fellow prisoners on their terms. However, as Abnesti and Verlaine (Mark Paguio) push the drugs’ limits, Jeff begins questioning his jailer’s motivations.
If Spiderhead was released in 2010, it would serve as a poignant narrative about the dangers of drug companies. Even a few years ago, one could easily read the film as a warning about the Opioid crisis in America. However, coming at this moment pushes the narrative too close to internet conspiracies from the fringe. With distrust in pharmaceutical companies at an all-time high, and many on the far right refusing to receive the Covid vaccine because they believe it can track and control your actions, an odd cloud settles over the film. While this says more about the radical fringes and the types of conspiracies that gain traction online, Kosinski, Rhett Rheese, and Paul Wernick (the writing duo behind Deadpool) stumbled into an anti-vax narrative. The world has changed since the story and film began production, and unfortunately, the issues the teams attempt to tackle share strong similarities to talking points in this movement.
Luckily for Kosinski and the writers, they can sometimes subvert this narrative, thanks to an incredible performance from Hemsworth. This role gives him the ability to cut loose. Turning his charm up to 11 helps subdue some of the film’s narrative flaws, allowing his charisma to convince anyone he truly has the best intentions. While the stink of pharma bro with ill intent hangs over the film, Hemsworth’s pure joy helps smooth over some of the issues at play.
Teller brings pathos to the role, despite feeling slightly out of tune with Hemsworth’s giddiness. Given his character’s background versus his real-life car accident in 2007, it is easy to understand why there’s more passion to his performance. Both Teller and the character suffered from car accidents in their past, each leading to Teller’s ejection from the vehicle. Given this is Kosinski’s third collaboration with the actor, the casting cannot be anything but purposeful. Teller brings sincerity to the screen, showcasing a different side of himself from their Top Gun: Maverick collaboration. There are some issues with Teller’s somber tone versus Hemsworth’s unhinged pharma-bro, but the dichotomy also allows the film to examine a class divide that may not exist otherwise.
While Teller and Hemsworth dominate most of the film, Jurnee Smollett gets her own emotional arc. While the character hides her dark past, she communicates genuine remorse in her first scenes. The screenplay does little to develop the character, but Kosinski realizes how powerful Smollett’s performance can be in limited screentime. He allows scenes with her to elongate, both in lingering shots and non-verbal dialogue. While her story becomes filtered through the lenses of men, Smollett layers in enough subtext to flesh out the character.
Using traditional yacht rock and adult contemporary classics helps develop a unique vision for the film. Kosinski’s camera adds sleek sterility to the world, enhancing the Ex Machina vibes with clean and simple cinematography. When combined with the easy-listening soundscape, he lulls you into believing the calmness of the film. While it’s not exactly subtle, it certainly showcases Kosinski’s thoughts going into every shot. Additionally, Kosinski handles the odd comedy of the film with grace, and other than a recurring poop joke, most of the humor hits the mark. For a Netflix film, Spiderhead checks more boxes as an entertaining feature than one might expect, even as it struggles with its narrative.
While Spiderhead does not land every moment, there’s enough intrigue and curiosity in the film to rise above average films. Hemsworth surprises again, proving the actor has far more self-awareness than expected. He continues to showcase his movie star bonafides, and Spiderhead unleashes him in the best ways. However, due to its slightly tired narrative and similarity to real-world conspiracies, the film lands with some frustrating questions. In a few years, I hope to revisit the movie without the baggage it currently carries.
Alan’s Rating: 6/10
Spiderhead is playing in select theaters. It is currently on Netflix.