In both keen and ineffective ways, mood confusion is the slant of choice for Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead opening on Netflix this week. Targeting both the narrative characters and us in the voyeurs’ seats, purposeful choices are made to set a certain vibe. That curated atmosphere is meant to cloak and subvert a more impactful identity underneath. The turn-on/turn-off clinchers for Spiderhead’s engagement as a thriller are how tantalizing the constructed mood is and how provocative is the hidden truth. Nail both and you’ve got something special in the hallowed mindf–k department of cinema. Hit on only half, and audiences will see squandered potential or subpar returns. Try as it may, a few too many of Spiderhead’s deceptive infusions and faulty outcomes miss their possible peak.
Based on the George Saunders 2010 short story “Escape from Spiderhead” first published in The New Yorker, the mild science fiction at play presents the concept of a radical penitentiary and research facility constructed on a lavish ocean coast accessible only by sea or air. At Spiderhead, admitted imprisoned applicants are allowed posh living conditions, relaxed security protocols, and community involvement in exchange for being test subjects for a behavioral study headed by Dr. Steve Abnesti.
Played with excessive vanity masking scientific aspiration (see, let the mood confusion begin) by Chris Hemsworth, Steve has developed several mind-altering serums that are dispensed into the convicts by way of a spinal injection pod affixed to their lower backs. Dr. Absenti has engineered specific formulas for different emotional catalysts and thought centers, ranging from aggression to affection. Delivered via app control, the drugs, coupled with a heavy blanket of camera surveillance, are the only docile security measures needed at Spiderhead.
One of Dr. Abnesti’s long-term participants is Miles Teller’s Jeff, a man with a sine backbone and large regrets serving a long sentence for vehicular manslaughter. He’s been through several phases of development for these drugs with Dr. Abnesti and is well aware of their effects. Still, in order to enjoy these domestic comforts and burgeoning feelings for another inmate named Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett of Birds of Prey), he complies with Steve’s requests and regiment.
What seems to be the bulk of Dr. Abnesti’s current experimental work is determining the staying power of his controversial cocktails. Steve obsessively believes that if he can develop and control amplified moments of passion, fear, humor, language, or more that can last as far as correcting errant behavior, he will unlock the potential for societal obedience at a massive level. For the movie’s detained guinea pigs (and us), the ongoing tests make one question what’s real: the chemically-induced and unshackled highs that were held inside one’s conscience or the baseline reality where getting to that positive euphoria takes genuine feelings without a trigger?
Smiling through spectacles, strutting to ’80s soft rock, and lashing out with admonishing humor, Chris Hemsworth is a nefarious hoot flexing his dominant charisma and a smarmy American accent as he holds his charity over the heads of his subjects. The Aussie goes a very madcap route to sell the Nobel Prize-level work his character believes. Steve feigns the “respectful relationship between the jailed and the jailer” when what he is cooking is self-serving, puppeteered evil. Hemsworth’s character is designed to rub you the wrong way with seedy aloofness.
But because it’s the typically dreamy Hemsworth in that sinful skin, it’s a hell of a leap to buy. To his and the screenwriters’ great credit, Chris stays in full asshole mode through the whole of Spiderhead, rightfully avoiding the current and all-too-common tendency to lather sympathy onto movie villains for the sake of duping audiences to care. Put this performance right next to Chris’s Avengers mate Sebastian Stan from Fresh earlier this year as taboo-smearing and image-busting fun. He’s the draw here.
True to Spiderhead’s aim of misdirection, the production value from Joseph Kosinski and his frequent lead collaborators, many who continued after the completion of Top Gun: Maverick, adds varnishes of mystique willfully hiding the delusional setting. Shot among Australia’s gorgeous Whitsunday Islands of Queensland’s Gold Coast, Claudio Miranda’s cinematography blends every ray of sunshine with the interior LED lighting to expose people and situations in clean, yet coy ways. The shiny, clinical sets dressed by production designer Jeremy Hindle (Detroit) add to the slick shrouds eager to be uncovered everywhere.
Through it all, one gets that sense that what is transpiring in Spiderhead is not severe enough for the implications that were built and promised. Playing in opposition to a line dropped in the movie that says, “Beautiful people get away with too much,” the prettier the facade sometimes dictates the higher level of necessary darkness for the opposing revelations that destroy it. As engrossing as Spiderhead can be, there’s a point where Hemsworth’s loon, the yacht rock, the cool edge of Joseph Trapenese’s (Oblivion) score, and the actuality of the overall mystery are too non-threatening.
Granted, that’s the mood confusion trickery being employed in what can be seen as a directing-against-type exercise from a big-time bells-and-whistles dramatic action specialist like Joseph Kosinski. Still, we have characters with what are supposed to have uncontrollable switches being flipped inside of them. The outbursts and reactions titillate more often than they truly explode, especially considering the presence of Miles Teller and Jurnee Smolett and their penchants for composure-breaking emotionality as actors. Simply put, this should all hurt more.
When you read the thumbnail summary of Saunders’ short story and get hints at the stakes and bleakness of this creative puzzle, the feelings of missed opportunities grow. One cannot help but wonder if Deadpool series screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick left out or softened too much of the source’s potency. Like the incarcerated characters of Spiderhead, were they simply verbally acknowledging the presence of the storytelling drugs without embracing full commitment to their most dangerous effects?