If you’re looking to walk a shaky ethical tightrope for approximately an hour and fifty minutes, Spiderhead is the film for you. Directed by Top Gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinski and based on George Saunders’ 2010 New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” the film is set in a futuristic prison facility called Spiderhead that offers its inmates an unprecedented amount of freedom. But at what cost?
Conceived by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), Spiderhead exists for one sole purpose: to test innovative experimental drugs on prisoners. The drugs in question fabricate a wide array of emotional states in their subjects: laughter, honesty, love – you name it.
Of course, experimental drug tests are bound to come with considerable caveats. In this case, Steve isn’t exclusively concerned with eliciting “good” emotions; he wants to extract the bad ones, too. And does so using Darkenfloxx: a drug that makes you sick, angry, and suicidal all at once.
Understandably unsettled by Steve’s blasé use of the potentially killer drug, inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) starts digging into the powers-that-be behind Spiderhead. Sure enough, he realizes that not everything is as peachy as the higher-ups want you to think it is.
What follows is a high-concept, high-stakes action film that traverses a tense, compelling thread. For roughly the first half, Kosinski skillfully draws out the story’s tension for as long as possible by dropping hints of some evil master plan at perfectly-timed intervals. He also ups the personal survival stakes by crafting a captivating and believable relationship between Jeff and fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), whose chemistry is palpable.
But sadly, despite its carefully constructed beginning and middle, Spiderhead falls apart in the third act, which, without giving too much away, includes an ill-fitted and poorly-explained twist ending. This is particularly frustrating because Saunders’ short story is straightforward, puts all of its cards on the table within the first few pages, and has the confidence to believe that its conceit and storytelling will be enough for its audience.
This is all to say that Kosinski didn’t have to add too much to the source material to make a compelling film. Indeed, not only does Spiderhead have a fascinating premise, but it also has complex characters who are effortlessly fun to watch and do a lot of legwork on their own. Jeff is a refreshingly unconventional protagonist, played by Teller as tense, reserved, restrained, and introspective (though sometimes his inaction verges on boring to watch). Steve, too, isn’t your run-of-the-mill villain: Hemsworth plays him, in a career highlight, with a nagging edge of hard-to-watch, coked-out tech-bro desperation. More than anything else, Steve needs to be liked.
But to his detriment, Kosinski refuses to allow his film to ride on great performances and even greater source material. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who are typically known for collaborating on crisp, concise scripts like Deadpool and Zombieland, throw far too much information into Spiderhead’s screenplay, like various tongue-twister drug names and inconsequential character backstories. Not only that, but they also don’t do a great job at explaining many of their arbitrary threads.
But it isn’t just the over-stuffing of the script that’s a problem in Spiderhead. Although the film doesn’t stray too far from its source material until the third act on a storytelling level, the production design and camerawork throughout hint at the bombastic, nonsensical, and overwrought ending. For example, the Spiderhead facility inexplicably looks like something designed by a ritzy contemporary architect for eight billion dollars. And is all but missing a couple of helicopter landing pads. While this is clearly an attempt to evoke a feeling of dystopian futurism, the astonishing extravagance doesn’t make much sense in the context of the plot. Ultimately, it only subtracts from the story’s central ethical contemplations and makes it feel more like a high-budget action movie than a thought-provoking meditation on life, death, and human rights.
The same thing applies to the film’s cinematography, consisting of a strange juxtaposition between simple, subdued interior shots that highlight the power struggle between Jeff and Steve and sweeping wide shots of jets zooming over the glistening coastline. Like the production design, the camerawork’s grandeur confuses the plot’s philosophical nature and tonally makes Spiderhead feel more like an action flick than anything else.
Similar tonal oddities emerge during flashback scenes, where we learn why Jeff is in prison. Years prior, he got behind the wheel while drunk and got in a crash that killed his best friend. It should be an emotional scene that explains Jeff’s feelings of guilt. As well as the feeling that he deserves his treatment in Spiderhead. It’s all undercut by frantic editing and a bizarre vintage lens filter. What Kosinski was attempting to achieve with these stylistic choices, only he knows. But the choices are far too distracting to evoke any extra empathy for Jeff.
When it comes down to it, adapting a George Saunders story was always going to be a tricky balancing act due to the interiority and weighty philosophy inherent in his prose. Sadly, Kosinski’s attempts to add excitement to Saunders’ work end up over-crowding the script and confusing the tone. Perhaps it is possible to create an adaptation of “Escape from Spiderhead” that is both engaging and thought-provoking. But this isn’t it.