Film Review – Spiderhead
Fresh off his directorial success with Top Gun: Maverick (2022), Joseph Kosinski has returned with the sci-fi thriller, Spiderhead (2022). Adapted from George Saunders’ short story, Escape from Spiderhead, the film examines the themes of control and free will in a society looking to subvert them. This is familiar territory for the genre and has been the basis for fine literary and cinematic output throughout the years. Sadly, Kosinski (with screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) does not add any new insight or twist. In fact, the narrative is so straightforward with its approach that whatever surprises it has in store for us can be guessed in the first act. It takes a disturbing premise and stretches it out to a feature-length runtime, ultimately watering down the overall effect. How odd that a filmmaker who delivered such a rousing, jet-propelled blockbuster would follow it up with something so forgettable.
In an unspecified future, criminals are given an opportunity from doing hard time in jail. Instead, they can choose to live in a non-security penitentiary called Spiderhead, where the doors are always open, they can wander around freely, cook their own meals, and interact with each other like everyday people. The catch: They must subject themselves to experiments headed by a man named Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). These experiments involve surgically attached devices that can disperse drugs into a person body through a smart phone app. The drugs manipulate a person’s mood – at any point they can become attracted to another person, become frightened, laugh uncontrollably, or fall into a state of hysteria. Whenever a drug is administered, an inmate must give their consent by saying “Acknowledge.” Like a mad scientist overlooking his lab rats, Abnesti examines the reactions of his subjects, tinkering and adjusting the doses accordingly.
Abnesti argues that the experiments can do good for the world, allowing people to live free from hate, anger, or depression. Of course, that’s not the case, is it? Despite being told that they can come and go as they please, the inmates are not really given a choice, are they? The fact that Abnesti is testing out a way to control people’s emotions runs counter to the very idea of freedom. This reminded me of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014), which also examined similar themes of human nature and oppression. But where Garland’s film told its story in a creative way, Kosinski’s approach feels mechanical. The set design and art direction structure the facility with cold and lifeless cement. Kosinski juxtaposes his dark and brooding material with pop music. The opening and closing credits look as though they were handwritten with a hot pink marker. I suppose the imbalance between these varying factors is meant to amplify the sense that something is not right, but it doesn’t pay off in a satisfactory way.
This contrast also exists within the performances. Where Miles Teller’s Jeff and Jurnee Smollett’s Lizzy have serious, dark pasts fill with guilt and regret, Hemsworth struts and swaggers as the kooky doctor. His performance as Abnesti is a blend between tech mogul and scheming business tycoon. Where everyone else plays their parts earnestly, Abnesti is written, directed, and performed like a parody of a villain. The way he casually tosses out punchlines, how he greets his guests every morning through intercom, or how he spins and dances to music seems like he stepped out of a comedy rather than a hard-hitting sci-fi film. Hemsworth is more than capable to deliver menace and intimidation – his skills as an actor is not in question. The problem is that the role is constructed in opposition of everything else we see.
Much of the action takes place within an examination room. Colored in bright white, with a one-way mirror so that Abnesti can watch and take note, these rooms are set up so that we can see the effects every time the drugs are increased. The opening scene does a good job of displaying the troubling things characters go through when they enter this place – they basically give up their ability to act on their own accord. However, what was a good start quickly unravels as we return to the rooms again and again. The cyclical nature of the experiments dissipates the atmosphere. The rooms go from cages where characters are viewed like zoo animals to a kind of stage for performance art. Some of the over-the-top antics the actors are tasked to do borders on ridiculous. The scenes become increasingly absurd, such as when an inmate cowers in the corner of the room, scared to death of a stapler. How the drugs affect behavior, memory, and emotion doesn’t make sense. Sure, how we process our feelings is different from person to person, but that is not what is being conveyed here.
The narrative eventually downshifts in the third act, settling for mundane action. The eventual resolution feels empty and incomplete. What exactly are we supposed to take away from this? That living in a fascist society where everything is decided for us and everyone is the exact same is bad? That’s kind of preaching toward the choir, isn’t it? As sci-fi, Spiderhead operates as time filler, utilizing somewhat interesting ideas but doing nothing interesting with them. As a thriller, it’s even worse. It boggles the mind that a director of Kosinski’s caliber, who helped craft some of the most amazing aerial combat ever caught on film, would also make something so unremarkable. He has more than proven himself to be a filmmaker of distinct style and I’m sure he’ll come back with something that reinforces that notion. Let’s just view this as his own failed experiment, shall we?