Still riding on the high of “Top Gun: Maverick”’s box office-smashing success in recent weeks, director Joseph Kosinski is firing out another, less bombastic project on Netflix, created in Australia during the two pandemic years that delayed the release of the Tom Cruise vehicle.
Adapted from a short story by George Saunders originally published in The New Yorker, “Spiderhead” imagines a not-so-unfeasible reality where a pharmaceutical company experiments on inmates with chemicals that can drastically alter a person’s behavior.
In an increasingly rarer onscreen sighting of the Australian actor without his Thor attire, Chris Hemsworth plays a smarmy villain, Steve Abnesti, in charge of this ethically questionable pursuit, but still a pawn of the larger corporation that he claims forces him to push the boundaries of his test subjects’ health. He’s all smiles and pleasantries, but he’s hiding something sinister. Up in his Bond-villain lair overlooking the ocean, on the island where this supposedly more humane prison is located, this is the sort of kooky character that the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal or Oscar Isaac could make memorable; Hemsworth, not so much.
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Steven and his sidekick Mark (Mark Paguio) attaches a device to prisoners’ spines that dispenses a cocktail of drugs that they tailor to each captive. That Steven controls every substance administered on once from his cellphone feels accurate to our reliance handheld devices and absurdly simplistic considering what’s at stake. Before a new dose enters the inmate’s bloodstream, Steve requests each to verbally “acknowledge” their consent to her, creating the illusion of agency.
Guilt-ridden over a car crash that landed him in jail, Jeff (Miles Teller) has become Steve’s preferred specimen. Early on, he withstands a drug that replicates sexual arousal and postcoital attachment with multiple partners; these scenes eventually fall into homophobic tropes about prison rape that ring lazy. But Jeff’s romantic interest rests in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a fellow prisoner, and Steve will later exploit their relationship to try out another mix that causes paranoia.
“Spiderhead,” which is teeming with ’80s nostalgia via its groovy soundtrack, is reminiscent of titles such as Michael Bay’s “The Island,” “Ex Machina,” “High Life” and “Swan Song.” But it feels derivative and only superficially invested in its big ideas about second chances and the conundrum of appropriating the bodies of individuals whom society has deemed irredeemable.
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Co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool”) imbues tonal fluctuations that mimic how the drug trials disrupt the emotions of those being tested on, as they straddle the humor of some of the scenarios with the many darker undertones inherent to the premise .
Almost entirely contained within a single location without windows, the film looks cinematically bland, unfolding in white rooms and hallways that could have been pulled from any random office building. Even the touch of Oscar-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, whose ambition often comes through as it does in “Top Gun: Maverick,” seems flattened, almost as if by design, except in a notable flashback sequence. One gets the impression that the filmmakers are surfaces after a certain sleekness that never fully given the generic sets and tech devices that appear strangely lo-fi. The filmmaker also resorts too often to needle drops to pump the film with an air of artificial coolness.
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Teller, a great actor who anchors this effort with a convincing performance, carries himself with a somber air. It’s only when he is on screen that the consequences of this perverse game come across as heinous as it is. At some point during the ordeal, Jeff and Steve spend an evening together under the influence of a drug that causes uncontrollable laughter; as the former confesses his father’s abandonment for his convey his greatest wound his, his stare his burning desire.
None of the other prisoners, all whom have presumably agreed to this arrangement, get much screen time or backstories. If one considers that only incarcerated people centered are those whose crimes are attributed to neglect and not malice (Jeff and Lizzy), then the story’s message of forgiveness doesn’t apply to the others. As much as that feels narrow-minded and philosophically convenient, the creators show little intention to engage with the ramifications of their “provocative” yet not so clear-cut concept. That level of engagement may have been sufficient for a short story, but here the absence of depth is evident.
“Spiderhead” can be entertaining as long as you don’t probe too deeply. Like many recent Netflix originals, it’s neither essential or singular enough to merit much attention beyond its first weekend of release — just another sci-fi thriller with a nonchalant antagonist. Too bad audiences can’t get any of the giggles-inducing liquid dispensed on screen.
“Spiderhead” premieres on Netflix US June 17.