From the director of Top Gun: Maverick, the writers of both Deadpool movies, and starring Thor himself, the new Netflix original film Spiderhead probably would’ve demanded tentpole status not two years ago, but in our current oversaturated environment, it arrives with basically the same level of buzz as Avrodh 2 on ZEE5.
Spiderhead is a slick, self-contained science-fiction thriller modelled after 1970s dystopian movies like Logan’s Run, but might remind younger audiences of Michael Bay’s The Island. Like Tom Cruise in Maverick, Chris Hemsworth plays the pseudo-protagonist, while Miles Teller gets the more compelling arc. The always electric young actor stars as an inmate named Jeff, imprisoned at a top-secret facility overseen by Hemsworth’s character, Steve.
On the surface, the Spiderhead facility looks like one of those Nordic prisons where even mass shooters live in minimum security bungalows overlooking fjords. And certainly, the manipulative Steve never misses an opportunity to remind the inmates of the relaxing lives that they are being allowed to live, despite having committed grave crimes. Jeff, for instance, was involved in a drunk driving accident that killed his buddy—a plot point that mirrors something that really happened to Teller, leaving him with emotional wounds that he occasionally talks about in interviews, and facial scars that will now also be a part of any character that he ever plays.
Of course, there’s a catch to why the inmates at Spiderhead are left relatively unchecked. The prison, we are soon told, is ground zero for some very sinister experiments. And the guilt-ridden Jeff is an ideal guinea pig for Steve, who doesn’t need to apply much pressure on him to get him to participate in his increasingly unethical human trials.
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Steve has manufactured a variety of drugs that, once administered on a human being, can make them emotionally pliable. One drug affects their libido, and another their mood. There’s even a drug that makes people more articulate. But Steve’s priority is to perfect something more meaningful: a drug that can mimic the feeling of being in love.
Spiderhead is a minor Kosinski film, but it’s a great exhibit for his signatures as a filmmaker, like the modernist architecture that he’s always been fascinated by, the digital cinematography by Claudio Miranda, and Joseph Trapanese’s electronic score. These are all superficial observations, though. At their core, nearly all of Kosinski’s films deal with loneliness. But while the characters in Tron Legacy, Oblivion and Maverick embodied a more literal solitude, Spiderhead is the the first time that Kosinski is actively addressing these anxieties via plot. Steve is a mad scientist, but in a way, he’s a lot like Jeff Bridges’ Kevin Flynn from Tron Legacy, or even Cruise’s Maverick from Top Gun 2—characters who are so devoted to their missions that they’ve sacrificed nearly every personal relationship that they’ve ever had.
What’s cool about Spiderhead—and we’ll get to the problems in a bit—is that it isn’t set in the distant future, which makes some of its ideas seem more urgent. Steve, for instance, uses iPhones to control the dosage of the drugs that he injects into the inmates’ bloodstreams. And both vehicles that can connect the isolated facility to the mainland—a plane and a boat—are positively vintage, as is the film’s old-school rock soundtrack.
But for all its thematic grandiosity—Steve’s ultimate masterplan, without giving it away, will likely appeal to the Vijay Deverakonda types—Spiderhead never fully comes together. As a character, Steve is too thinly drawn, and the film’s dedication to project him as the protagonist of the story is a pointless distraction that gets in the way of you forming a bond with Jeff. And the tone is all over the place. Spiderhead can’t decide whether it wants to be a paranoid thriller or a darkly comedic satire of our times. Hemsworth’s performance, however, is rather enjoyable. He plays Steve like a massively entitled tech bro with a God complex.
But in an encouraging sign of creative evolution, this is the second Kosinski film in a row where the emotional through line is stronger than his glossy visuals. Jeff’s redemption arc is genuinely moving, although—and this is emblematic of the film—it would’ve been even more arresting had his crimes been more morally complex. But Spiderhead is happy to wave at grand ideas from a distance, without ever going in for a handshake.
Director – Joseph Kosinski
Cast – Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
Rating – 3/5