There are many things working in favor of Spiderhead as it approaches its release this weekend on Netflix. Director Joseph Kosinski and Miles Teller are hot off Top Gun: Maverick. Jurnee Smollett is a fine actor, and Hemsworth and his baby-blues are always a draw. Based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, this one is set at a remote high-tech facility where prisoners can reduce their sentences and evade standard penitentiary conditions in exchange for testing emotion-altering drugs at the hands of an enterprising scientist named Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth). When the level of these trials elevates to point lives are at stake, one inmate (Teller) will try to outsmart the system.
Overall, this film was a mixed bag for me. There certainly were elements to it that I enjoyed. The premise is interesting. Using prisoners to test experimental drugs sounds like something from an 80’s action movie but with a bit more style, more science mumbo jumbo, and an emphasis on the drama, there are solid spots of enjoyable tension and emotional intrigue here. These trials revolve around the ability to control human emotion and as the story progresses and Jeff (Teller) begins to feel not all is right, it does result in genuine curiosity. This is a contained story that does evoke some thought as to what is going on in the world outside of this prison. It builds mystery as to the true purpose of these drug trials that does help maintain the curiosity factor.
Chris Hemsworth comes in and delivers one of his most layered roles in terms of range. He has his moments of charm, but sprinkles in bits of awkward humor, and sinister calculation as well to create a fun wildcard for the story. You clearly know something is off with this guy, so it does create a connection to the mission of truth Jeff embarks on. Teller also brings a capable performance, and he does make the most of this broken character who is tormented by the past. Jurnee Smollett brings plenty of appeal as well in her smaller role, so Spiderhead certainly has a capable cast at its disposal.
So, why when all was said and done was this movie just average? Problem number one for me was the slow pace. Now this isn’t always a deal breaker. If a film takes the time to explore story wrinkles, to develop its narrative I’m all-in on the ride. This script on the other hand was a bit surface level. I won’t say there was no substance to it at all. Because pieces of this story were very engaging and successful in building an inquisitive vibe. However, the repetition of the trials, the over teased mystery of what Steve is up to, and a lack of depth into the world around the story to build motive, results in a movie that feels flashy and looks polished. But one that also forces you to take things at face value with the aura of thought provoking not really being a benefit for the viewer.
The first act can reel you in. The dashes of odd humor create a strange atmosphere that admittedly fits the plot well as the story establishes itself. The middle act counters that by feeling much longer than it was, as it circles around with little forward movement. Repeatedly going to the drug experiments as the focus when a couple other subplots could have provided some foundation to invest in. Instead Spiderhead weaves in musical scene intros that in all honesty, do elevate the energy as unneeded as they were. The selection of music was cool. But it also felt completely detached from the film it was in, and ultimately felt more like mildly effective fluff.
In the end Spiderhead is not a bad movie. It’s just one that despite all its style feels a bit flat. It could have dived into the concepts of the mental torment of these prisoners and their journey to survive and…at times it does that. But it also feels like a movie that wanted to appeal to a mass audience instead of diving into the science-fiction potential of the story to appeal to a niche. Spiderhead is a solid one-time watch at home. The performances are appealing, and they certainly showcase effort. But don’t be surprised if you suddenly forget most of this one when talking about movies with your friends in a few days.
Anthony J. Digioia II © 2022 SilverScreen Analysis. All Rights Reserved.