Spiderhead review — Too obvious execution betrays interesting concept

Directed by Joseph Kosinski | Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story by George Saunders | 106 min | ▲▲△△△ | Netflix

What we have here is a little sci-fi drama spiked with tech anxiety, very much in the style of Black Mirror, an inspiration we’re seeing a lot of lately. Certainly Don’t Worry Darling had that vibe, though that movie had a lot more success in making us care for its characters than Spiderhead does.

This one is set in a remote, island-based, modernist laboratory that also serves a penitentiary. The inmates have volunteered to be guinea pigs for drug experiments, presumably to reduce their sentences.  Some of the drugs are hallucinogenic. Some are aphrodisiacs, some are nightmarish despair-generators, some improve your vocabulary and ability to express yourself. Some increase your appetite.

Chris Hemsworth is Steve Abnesti. He runs this place with all the energy and attitude of a tech billionaire, an entirely different flavour from the man who is Thor. Here’s a character who talks about being abandoned by his father quite a lot, but almost as a point of pride since he’s apparently achieved so much. The American accent is reasonably solid and the egoism is real, as are his rationalizations and manipulations.

Around Steve we’ve got the convicts who seem to live with a lot of peace in this communal environment, which architecturally has a real brutalist vibe.

I’m all for a conceptual sci-fi slash prison thriller, but this one fails to explain how this place started up and continues to run.

If such a facility were ever to actually exist, there’s absolutely no way the human test subjects and the people administering them would share space in this “summer camp”. Of course, the fact that these people have been hooked up to a permanent mood-filtering drug-administering-device does make you wonder if they’re being managed even away from the testing chamber, chemically speaking, even though they apparently have to give consent every time they’re dosed.

Also, where are administrative and support staff who bring in food and other supplies — or medical staff should there be an emergency?  Those folks are distractingly absent.

Then we’ve got the key inmates — Miles Teller as Jeff and Jurnee Smollett as Lizzy, who get friendly. Their connection plays a role as Steve gets close to his final tests of specific mood and will-controlling drugs.

The movie skates along the edge of satire, looking to comment on our stimulated culture — everything from our addiction to devices to our many prescribed substances. All the late ‘70s, early ‘80s needle drops on the soundtrack are a genuine pleasure, from Supertramp to Hall & Oates to the Doobie Brothers. Kosinki, director of Tom Cruise pictures Oblivion and the recent Top Gun: Maverick brings a lot of slick style to the effort, and it’s not without a bit of humour here and there — they have some fun with scary dude with the face tattoo and the guy on the always-hungry drug.

Too bad so much of this is half-baked. There’s a revelation about Steve that comes about halfway in that’s entirely anticlimactic as it’s something already plenty evident in his character. Also, a detail about Jeff’s past, the real reason he was jailed, is shared in a frustratingly ham-fisted way.

And that’s the film’s fatal flaw — every reveal feels obvious. From the jump the idea that this is a horrific dystopic nightmare is right there, so when plot developments roll out confirming what we already know suspense is entirely absent.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.