Spiderhead is pure algorithm “art,” an empty bad-tech tale that delivers nothing new or exciting.
You’d be forgiven for getting excited for a mid-budget, talent-driven, non-IP-based sci-fi movie when you hear about Spiderhead. Such things are in extremely short supply these days. Chris Hemsworth took a vacation from Marvel to show up, it’s adapted from an acclaimed, imaginative, and idiosyncratic author’s work, it’s directed by the guy behind recent blockbuster-par-excellence Top Gun Maverick, and it clocks in under 2 hours — no reason to worry. Unfortunately, the end result is as flavorless as any dull, A24-branded, allegedly “elevated” genre fare. It’s pretty. It’s sometimes wryly funny. It’s trite.
Based on a short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead finds us at the eponymous facility, a penitentiary of sorts wherein the convicts are given a surprising amount of personal freedom as long as they willingly submit to being guinea pigs for experimental drugs. These drugs can make you laugh uncontrollably, they can make you fall in love, they can make you want to kill yourself. It’s all about making everyone’s problems go away, says Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), the guy running the show, or at least that’s what he tells Jeff (Miles Teller), his favorite test subject. Jeff apparently suspects no potential shadiness on the part of this very charismatic and pharmaceutically inclined warden, which indicates that he has never before seen a movie or read a book.
Because of course Steve is doing a bad thing, and of course it’s a folly to tamper in God’s domain. It makes for quite a bizarre plot trajectory, even setting aside its essential lack of originality, since at no point is it unclear to anyone — either the characters or the audience — that Steve is testing drugs that can make people do things they don’t want to do, and that there’s a significant ethical quagmire involved. The movie begins with all of its cards already obviously on the table, and then simply sits out the game — there’s simply nothing here. It’s just a feature-length Black Mirror episode, another boring tale of someone adopting a very clearly dangerous bit of technology, only to find there are bad consequences. Wake me up when it’s over.
Adapting the prize-winning Saunders is Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, the guys who made Deadpool so nuanced, and there’s a cheeky attempt here to make this feel edgy, even a little dangerous. Hemsworth dances to yacht rock; Wernick and Reese want you to know we have a real sense of playful humor here. Director Joseph Kosinski — a trained architect and an excellent visual stylist who made the aerial combat in Top Gun Maverick into some of the best action of the decade — has nothing to do but shoot everything in flat, placid frames. The Spiderhead facility set itself is a lovely one, and quintessentially for Kosinski, it’s a haunted double for his characters’ emotional space, but that can only take one so far when the material is this empty. Everything in Spiderhead is played safely and with no imagination. In and of itself, it’s sort of its own cautionary tale about bad tech — in this case the Netflix algorithm — making bland art.
You can stream Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead on Netflix beginning on July 17.