Spiderhead – Review

SpiderheadIn some ways, Spiderhead has slipped entirely under the radar. Rather than capitalising on the fact that the film was directed by Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski and features one of its stars, Miles Teller, Netflix seem to have popped a trailer or two on social media without much fanfare. Perhaps this is a result of a series of flops or the alleged mass exodus of paid subscribers. Either way, it’s a strange approach to a film with much to profit from – on a surface level, at least.

Based on George Saunders’s short story, Escape from Spiderhead, the film has been adapted for the platform by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Director Kosinski is also the man behind TRON: Legacy and Oblivion, neither of which proved to be even a fraction of the commercial success that Top Gun: Maverick has become. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Spiderhead will be scaling any great heights, either.

The film centres around Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who is conducted mind-altering experiments on the incarcerated in exchange for “better” living conditions. He is convinced of his own genius, believing that his experiments will change humanity irrevocably. One of his patients, Jeff (Miles Teller) starts to see a more sinister driving force behind the experiments and begins to question his time at the Spiderhead Penitentiary. In doing so, he unravels a web of deceit and danger.

It’s best to start with what works well in the film. Chris Hemsworth is on fire as the charming yet calculating Steve. His suits – all pale greys and blues – are fitted to within an inch of his frame. His glasses are crystal clear. His smile is warm and disarming. Everything about him screams dangerous yet he’s so effortlessly affable. Hemsworth is perfectly able to capture both sides of Abensti’s personality and goes through the ringer, quite visibly, as he samples his own product. It’s an excellent performance from him that really holds the entire film together.

Miles Teller is equally engaging as Jeff, a man thoroughly haunted by his past whilst increasingly disengaged with the experiment. Teller showcases his dramatic range throughout the flashbacks, the bizarre experiments and his confrontations with Hemsworth’s character. Jurnee Smollett, too, does the very best she can with her limited role. Her big dramatic reveal is kept until the end of the film and she really capitalises on that moment, delivering a raw and powerful monologue.

The soundtrack is also 80s banger after banger. We open with The Logical Song whilst What A Fool Believes and She Blinded Me With Science also feature. This is all good, vibrant fun for fans of such music. However, as good as the songs are, they seem rather incongruous with the subject matter at hand. Should a bloody fight and chase scene really be accompanied by a smattering of Hall and Oates?

Spiderhead This is just the most obvious example of how all over the place Spiderhead is tonally. It’s a film that doesn’t seem to know whether it’s tongue in cheek, a sci-fi thriller, a drama or a Black Mirror rip off. All of this makes for extremely clunky dialogue, bizarre sex scenes and an oddly vibrant soundtrack. It’s so all over the place that it really detracts from the intriguing idea at its core.

It’s unclear whether the source material just didn’t stretch enough to flesh out a more interesting feature film or if, perhaps, the writing team and director couldn’t agree on a particular tone. As a result, Spiderhead pretty much wastes an opportunity to explore a topic that could be very frightening if executed well. It doesn’t present a dystopian world view, instead it all seems a bit preppy and light. Even big dramatic reveals – either through flashback or “present day” are often undercut by a fit of the giggles, a complete change in conversation or a bit of Roxy Music. It’s a real shame, and you feel like the two male leads in particular are doing all they can to wring meaning and depth out of everything they say and do in order to counter these inconsistencies.

There are lots of good ideas contained within Spiderhead, but what you get to see is all a bit glib and safe. Save for one moment of bloodshed, there is no real presence of threat or elements of proper horror (two things that often go hand in hand with these types of sci-fi experiment films). Beyond rooting for Jeff, you’ll probably find that there is little you’ll care about.

Spiderhead is so middle of the road in some ways and so all over the place in others. The trailers make the film look like something it really is not – largely because it doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. It all feels like a bit of a hot mess and a complete waste of the talent involved. Another distinctly average misfire from the streaming giant.

Spiderhead is now showing on Netflix.

Mary Munoz
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