We could stand to have more sci-fi movies built like Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina.” Not that they should be about the same subject, but there’s a fruitful appeal in watching a limited cast tinker with variables on the human experience, all in a strange futuristic setting. “Spiderhead,” the latest film from Joseph Kosinski after last month’s “Top Gun: Maverick,” agrees with me, because with its many similarities it even has its mad scientist—played by a winking Chris Hemsworth—grooving to pop music. But the individual significance of “Spiderhead” is a larger issue, and it’s ultimately not nearly as clever or eye-opening as it dreams of being.
“Spiderhead” imagines a different kind of prison system—one with an open-door policy that allows the incarcerated to have their sense of self, to cook for themselves, to work out when they want to. What they sacrifice as punishment is their brain chemistry for science, which is toyed with by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), following the orders of a protocol committee hoping to cure the world’s problems through dosages. The prisoner has the free will to take an experimental dosage—approved by saying “Acknowledge”—and can be faced with the self-loathing of “Darkenfloxx,” or the immense need to laugh from “Laffodil.” If Abnesti needs them to articulate what they’re thinking, he raises the dosage (via a smartphone app) on “Verbaluce.” These are strange names (from the George Saunders short story Escape from Spiderhead, a first-person account that thrives on casually throwing these words around), and it’s sure strange to see Hemsworth play this guy.
One good side effect from “Spiderhead” is that the performances can have their own potency, but not when they’re given a certain dosage. Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, two of the main prisoners, give surefooted performances as Jeff and Lizzie, respectively. The prison has allotted them a chance at self-forgiveness, as both are here due to horrific instances of manslaughter. It’s funny, but revealing how the movie’s dosage scenes, these simulations they bring to life by screaming, writhing on the couch, and sometimes feigning suicide, leave you cold. The literal act of Abnesti turning them different ways becomes almost a conceit of a movie that itself is forcing its power, its vague reason to exist.
Based on the short story by Saunders but given a distinct stench by self-amused “Deadpool” screenwriters Rhett Rheese and Paul Wernick, “Spiderhead” strives for a disquieting quirkiness. Abnesti is not your average evil genius, nor is Spiderhead your average penitentiary, and this ain’t your regular talky sci-fi thriller. Even the opening and closing credits are scrawled with pink chicken scratch, accompanied by a jaunty Supertramp song that kicks off a soundtrack that openly goes between George Benson, Chuck Mangione, and Hall & Oates. But whatever “Spiderhead” is laughing about, or trying to sneak inside its drama, doesn’t shine bright enough. The movie can be so backwards that even its lead can seems out of place—it’s initially interesting to see Hemsworth play someone as disarming as he is manipulative, but he becomes a heavy-handed expression of the movie’s limited statements about science, power, control. He makes a stronger case for being recast, for someone who doesn’t just take the “hot scientist wearing glasses” trope back.
A lot of “Spiderhead” relies on the curiosity of its premise, which is teased by watching Hemsworth push Teller through different procedures, creating a friendship that this movie treats as its light stakes. It’s almost enough to make you not realize that so little happens in the first 40 minutes that the experiments—which become more and more manipulative—hardly have a cumulative unease. It becomes apparent how much a short story must have been stretched out.
The concept of prison is as concrete as the edifice used for its titular penitentiary, but “Spiderhead” seems to say more with its premise than its follow-through. It’s motivated to depict how the American prison system could be more humane, but then the plot’s larger reveals about what’s really going on are as close to an anti-surprise as you can get. The manipulation is worse than Jeff knows, and the plotting makes the film’s hollow nature even more pervasive with its convenient thrills (including a scene involving dropped keys to a secret drawer, and a shoulder-shrug of a grand finale). Even the ethics regarding prison become toothless. It doesn’t want to rock the boat about the prison system—the same way that “Top Gun: Maverick” shies away from reckoning with what really fuels those jets.
Though it starts with promise, “Spiderhead” is pseudo-heady sci-fi stuff that treats its most intriguing elements like an afterthought, and misses the opportunity to be a memorable oddity aside from its disappointments.
Culled from www.rogerebert.com