It’s a risk to not be risky when tackling a cyberpunk or dystopian story. Playing it safe doesn’t work—it doesn’t make the audience think about issues in society that are akin to what they’re seeing on screen. Given how the world is right now, it’s hard to shock and disgust viewers, which is a staple of stories analyzing a nightmarish future. While the foundations of something truly eerie lie beneath the film, Joseph Kosinski’s quirky Netflix original Spiderhead doesn’t take many risks and fails to create an abhorrent and frightening dystopia.
Spiderhead, based on George Saunders’ New Yorker short story Escape from Spiderhead, serves as Kosinski’s follow-up to his successful Top Gun: Maverick. The sci-fi flick—infused with misplaced and confusing bits of comedic “relief”—follows Jeff (Miles Teller) and his imprisonment in the Spiderhead Research Facility and Penitentiary, where cool, calm, and collected pharmaceutical tycoon Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is warden and torturer.
The Spiderhead Facility is an alternative to jail, where inmates are given free roam, free choice of clothing, comfortable rooms to themselves, and the ability to socially interact whenever they please. In return, they’re used as guinea pigs at Abnesti’s will (though under the guise that they still have a ‘choice’ to say no to his experiments). Surgically implanted with a drip pack on their back, prisoners are subjected to emotion-altering drugs that can be delivered into their bloodstream at any time. These drugs create increased feelings of love, sexual desire, rage, and depression. Jeff and fellow convict Rachel (Jurnee Smollett) grow close amid being haunted by their tragic pasts. Jeff grows increasingly disgusted and disturbed by Abnesti’s casual approach to human suffering, and begins to try and outsmart the overseer and his experiments.
Spiderhead is a promising flick that I was dying to like—I typically eat up anything dystopian. What’s so frustrating is that the foundation is there, lurking, waiting for Kosinski to take a chance on it. Hemsworth’s Abnesti is showcased as manipulative, charismatic, and vile, and though it’s nice to see him spread his wings with a creepy role outside of the Thor costume for once, I’m not sure he really sold it. Hemsworth attempts to play Abnesti with the calm coolness of a psychopathic cyberpunk/sci-fi villain, but his out-of-place, disjointed monologues, humorless comedic comments, and role in the plot itself limits him from ever fully becoming one. It’s not Hemsworth’s fault, really—just poor writing and judgment on what would enhance the character’s cruel personality. The lack of risks taken by Kosinski makes Abnesti feel more like a caricature of a sinister Corporation head rather than actually being one. As disgusting and as inhumane as Abnesti is, I’m not afraid of him. His weird dancing in Hawaiian shirts and penchant for Hall & Oates felt out of place in such a dystopia. There are unsettling “rich-geniuses-in-power” characters who can get away with this—Fresh’s Steve and Ex Machina’s Nathan—but Abnesti just came off as goofy, not eerie. Make him scare me! I wanted to see some truly disturbing things revealed about this guy—reveal his secrets, his other experiments! Get gritty! And, please, stop with the comedy until you can freak me out.
I think that’s what got me. Abnesti aside, the comedy interlaced in Spiderhead doesn’t land. Forcing two people to have sex and making the intercourse look over-the-top comical isn’t funny; it’s gross and voyeuristic. The comedic lens Kosinski was going for takes the seriousness out of the horrible situation Jeff is in—it feels odd, humorless, and I really don’t want to laugh.
That being said, there are moments throughout Spiderhead that are perfect, and I attribute much of that to Teller’s performance. Jeff’s haunting, graphic flashbacks to the night he drove drunk (resulting in multiple casualties) are stunning, with Teller showing off some serious acting chops. He portrays grief and despondency with chilling accuracy, and his connection with Rachel feels sincere and poignant in their scenes together.
The soundtrack to Spiderhead is catchy, smooth, and infused with classics, from ABBA to Supertramp. That being said, no matter how good the music is, it’s another thing that pulls you from the frightening, bigger narrative. I think they played these upbeat tracks to be unsettling, but again, it came off as slightly goofy.
The final act of Spiderhead is rushed and poorly explained and supplies the audience with a cut-and-dry happy ending.
I wanted to throw my hands up here. Science fiction—namely cyberpunk and dystopian—should not give in to these normalities. In stories like these, our protagonist rarely comes out happier from the conflict than when he came in. For Spiderhead to have succeeded, Kosinski should have taken that risk. Take chances! These sorts of stories reflect the issues and downfalls in our own society, and unfortunately, in reality, the bad guys and their megacorporations don’t really ever lose.
Spiderhead builds up the bones of a terrifying and unethical futuristic flick, but its execution—punctuated with snappy tunes and misplaced jokes and innuendos—falls flat.
dir. Joseph Kosinski
Spiderhead streams on Netflix on June 17.