What to Watch Verdict
Spiderhead is a twisted, slow-building sci-fi prison drama offering that is chillingly not as far-fetched as we’d like to think.
Hemsworth is unhinged and delightfully deranged; some of his best work
Thematically rich, understated but sinister storyline
Unclear how much time passes
Strong ensemble performances, but struggles to match Hemsworth’s energy and commitment
Spiderhead can be seen across peaceful ocean waters. It looks like an inviting island paradise, with communal spaces, comfortable rooms and a well-stocked kitchen, but it’s a lie. This architectural marvel is the prison at the center of Netflix's Spiderhead. In exchange for life in a state-of-the-art home, its prisoners agree to be participants in drug trials — walking guinea pigs with medpacs surgically attached to their spines.
The movie opens with a prisoner, Ray (Stephen Tongun), sitting in a comfortable chair in a white room. A voice tells inane jokes over a loud-speaker. He’s convulsing with laughter. The camera’s viewpoint is that of the unseen speaker; watching him through glass. It’s bizarre, increasingly so, as it becomes obvious Ray can’t stop laughing; not even when that voice talks about genocide. Just that fast, director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) sets the stage for what’s to come, inferring nothing’s what it seems in the near-future.
At the center of the story is Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), two inmates bonding as they trade their bodies for lives without bars. Overseeing it all is a charismatic Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). The convivial warden intent on running a respectful prison.
Writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (Deadpool) craftily wrap danger in a brittle humor and outlandishness that can easily be misjudged as tonally missing the mark. They funnel the film’s philosophy through one-liners and innocuous banter. Spiderhead is "funny" in the way almost taking a header down a flight of stairs leaves some laughing in the aftermath of being in potentially mortal peril. The jarring cognitive dissonance caused when unease and inappropriate good cheer collide is the point.
Abnesti demands participants verbally "acknowledge" to begin each test. With a single word, Spiderhead calls into question both the meaning of consent and free will. What follows is a series of raunchy tests designed to study the drugs’ limits. The story is driven forward by progressively disjointed encounters between Abnesti and Jeff, his star subject.
Teller plays Jeff with a stoicism built on guilt and desperation. The drugs are stealing pieces of him, but he’s still come to care for a fellow inmate, Lizzy. Smollett plays this thinly drawn character with a gritty vulnerability and sweetness. You can almost taste her need for Jeff’s approval. Abnesti watches them like a hawk, constantly pushing. It’s an incessant psychological game of bait and switch.
But Spiderhead makes an uneven effort at fleshing out the actual group; even with Teller and Smollett. But that may be on purpose.
The callousness calls to mind real trials like the Milgram experiment. It’s a commentary on what — or who — society’s willing to sacrifice for civility. Blurring the inmates into an exploited whole makes their collective performance as puppets in a gilded cage exemplify a kind of death of the soul. By the midway point if you haven’t realized Abnesi is the focus of the movie, you might be convinced neither the writers nor director understood George Saunders’s short story (Escape from Spiderhead). But you’d be wrong.
Reese & Wernick carefully layer Saunders’s themes and in Kosinski’s hands, visually, less truly is more. There’s no need to be heavy-handed about the threat Abnesti poses when Hemsworth’s smile — full of daggers, thinly veiled insults and snarky, insightful quips — will do. His slick presentation of facts is one part lies and two parts hope. And it works. Boy does it.
Buried behind Abnesti’s brilliance lies a broken man. He’s unapologetically ruthless even as he’s warm and sociable. The discordant note struck by his eerily upbeat attitude perfectly offsets the genuine warmth between Jeff and Lizzy. Everyone puts their faith in Abnesti. Redemption can be had if they help prevent "another them." Abnesti demands gratitude for his benevolence. Even as he makes it clear what they want doesn’t matter.
The artificial calm and perkiness of the inmates acting as a backdrop to Teller’s growing awareness that something is wrong makes for a compelling back and forth. But, as they get farther into the trials, Abnesti's jovial facade cracks. His tunnel vision makes him reckless. That recklessness leads to mistakes.
This only works because Hemsworth fully commits, giving off the energy of a cult leader. If there's a flaw in his development, it's that we don’t know enough about Abnesti’s reputation for the stakes to feel sufficiently high. Thankfully, the third act is about discovery not resolution and Hemsworth’s delightful sociopath doesn’t disappoint. His arc comes full circle, ending as things metaphorically began, with horrifyingly inappropriate laughter.
Subtlety in sci-fi/fantasy is often discounted by those convinced its story mechanics rob it of nuance or emotional resonance when translated to screen. While some lost that emotional connection because of magical powers or fantastical premises, it's often the quieter sci-fi narratives accused of being too implausible. But if we look closer at the world around us, we may realize how frighteningly close this island experiment could actually happen.
Ultimately, however, Spiderhead lacks the elements that push a story from being good into being great.
Kosinski took the not-so-deranged premise in Saunders’s story and turned its dark themes into a twisted cautionary tale. People will justify some seriously messed up stuff in the name of "the greater good." The movie's choice to leave the viewer to work through their preconceived notions about what’s plausible is exactly the point.
Spiderhead offers a world that looks welcoming and secure; but the beauty outside is nothing but pretty packaging around a rotten core. It’s one of those movies that creeps up and jabs viewers between the shoulder blades with an ice pick. Don’t blink because, imperfect though it is, it doesn't get more "genre" than this.
Spiderhead is now streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Ro is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film/tv critic, writer and host on several of the MTR Network's podcasts. She's a member of the San Diego Film Critics Society and the Online Association of Female Film Critics. She's a former culture columnist for San Diego CityBeat (may it rest in peace) with a serious addiction to genre fiction, horror and documentaries. You can find her sharing movie and book recs and random thoughts, on her podcast I Talk Sh!t and Read or in her newsletter, Shelf Envy.