The first step in reviewing a movie called Spiderhead is googling ‘Are there any spiders in Spiderhead?’ From Straw Dogs to A Clockwork Orange, there’s a long history of films with symbolic titles that bear little relation to their content, and Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up to Top Gun: Maverick is exactly just a project. Kosinski seems to be one of these film-makers who make nothing but A–lister blockbusters, five so far (Tron; Legacy, Only The Brave, Oblivion are the other three) and with a remarkably consistent cast; working with Jeff Bridges twice, Tom Cruise twice, Jennifer Connelly twice and Miles Teller three times. All Kosinki’s films have a sleek, futuristic look and big ideas to burn; Spiderhead is more identifiable as a Kosinski film that by its elusive, sinister and ultimately irrelevant title.
Spiderhead actually takes its title from a New Yorker short story by George Saunders called Escape from Spiderhead, and the title turns out to refer to an elaborate open prison in the near future, where Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is an ‘Island of Dr Calamari’ figure who is running controlling drug tests on the inhabitants. All of his test-cases are convicts, including Jeff (Teller) who is hiding the painful detail of a vehicular manslaughter, and now comes to accept being a guinea pig for the Abnesti company. Abnesti uses his phone to control the amounts of various serums that are released into the bloodstreams of his patients via back-packs, increasing their elocution, sexual desire, or depression, but an unfortunate accident reveals to Jeff exactly what’s going on and prompts his desire to escape….
Although the other inmates are reasonably well-drawn, Spiderhead is a taut, almost Pinteresque two-hander as Hemsworth and Teller jostle for position; the theme is about human beings might be controlled in the future, so the stakes are high. Spiderhead’s light, airy sets and well-designed tech conceal a genuine darkness in the material; an early scene sees Jeff getting it on with Heather (Tess Haubrich), but a later, disturbing scene sees her suddenly commit suicide when accidentally given an overdose of ‘darkenfloxx’, a depressant. This is serious stuff, but such bloody events don’t sit with the goofy, lightweight third act which resolves the conflict far too easily, and doesn’t do much with the world created other than use the medical conspiracy as a plot point for action.
So while Spiderhead is disjointed in plot development, it’s an entertaining ride, with Teller throwing out some genuine intensity as an everyman whose mood can vary, and Hemsworth making a surprisingly dynamic villain. Sure, Abnesti is a typical Mad Dr/Elon Musk combination entrepreneur, but Hemsworth’s disintegration is compelling to watch, leavened with humour and with the actors charm giving way to a overt psychosis. It’s a strong performance in a rather patchy film, but by Netflix standards, Spiderhead turns out to be one of their better cinematic endeavours.