Top Gun: Maverick aces, director Joseph Kosinksi and star Miles Teller, fly high again in a twisted psychotropic thriller. Based on The New Yorker short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead has a conniving scientist testing mind-altering drugs in a remote prison facility. There are no cells or locked doors. The convicts are free to roam and interact. The catch is that they are volunteers for clinical trials. Subject to lust, laughter, and aggression at the tap of a button. Spiderhead saps the capacity for self-control and free will. It’s a disturbing and somewhat comical head trip set to a rocking eighties soundtrack.
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) smiles as he boats to the Spiderhead compound. His favorite prisoner, Jeff (Teller), awaits in the stark white observation room. Steve doesn’t like that Jeff calls him “Mr. Abnesti.” He wants an honest rapport during the experiments. Jeff “acknowledges” he will take the drug. Steve’s dutiful assistant (Mark Paguio) activates the MobiPak attached to Jeff’s lower back. The numbered drug administers with a startling effect.
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Steve is overjoyed at the latest results. He brings Jeff back to the observation room with Heather (Tess Haubrich). They both “acknowledge” and are dosed by the MobiPak. Steve is stunned by the speed of their amorous reactions. N-40 could be a game-changer. A disheveled Jeff and Heather get up off the floor. Steve decides Jeff should try another dose with a new participant.
Jeff is haunted by the crime that sent him to Spiderhead. He admits his fears to Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) during snack time. The entire prison echoes with Steve’s playlist. He dances around with a sense of triumph. The next day’s series of tests takes an ominous turn. Steve wants Jeff to choose who gets dosed. Jeff clearly remembers the horror of I-16. He does not “acknowledge” Steve’s command.
Turning Humans Into Guinea Pigs
Spiderhead turns humans into Guinea pigs with a backslapping nod and wink. The prisoners are all convicted murderers. They live a relatively carefree existence instead of rotting away behind bars in a real penitentiary. Steve constantly reminds that everyone there is a volunteer. They chose the experiments as the price for their sins. Freedom of thought shouldn’t be a concern. Go sit in a dismal jail cell and contemplate those surroundings. This is the Faustian bargain that gnaws away at Jeff’s conscience.
Spiderhead’s production design successfully drives the narrative. Most of the action takes place in the observation room and shared common areas. Jeff has to eat in the same place as Heather after their drug-induced romps. The prisoners can’t avoid each other. Steve takes advantage of this awkwardness to monitor them further. He wants to see the lingering results of his work. Do the experiments lead to concrete change?
Hemsworth delights in playing against type as the villain. He chews up the screen with prancing and grinning machinations. Hemsworth embodies the cold intellect of cruelty for the greater good. The film reveals a tragic backstory that spurned his chemical agenda. He represents a diabolical personality type that’s prominent throughout historical advancement. The scientist who believes that the suffering of the unwanted few merits progress.
Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion, Tron: Legacy) adds a frivolous touch to exacerbate the bizarre circumstances. His choice of upbeat eighties pop classics helps to increase tension as the situation devolves. Spiderhead strikes an interesting tone for two-thirds of the runtime. My hopes for a clever climax were dashed. The sudden finale unfortunately falls prey to standard action tropes.
Spiderhead is a production of Grand Electric and The New Yorker Studios. It will have a June 17th global streaming premiere exclusively on Netflix.
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