SPIDERHEAD (2022), a new science fiction action thriller now available on Netflix, is a mishmash of these three genres, never really developing into anything special, yet remaining generally entertaining throughout.
It stars Chris Hemsworth, who must have a deal with Netflix, because he keeps showing up in their original movies. He starred in the superior Netflix action movie EXTRACTION (2020), one of the streaming network’s best movies to date, and appeared unbilled in the recent INTERCEPTOR (2022).
In SPIDERHEAD, Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a scientist who runs a special prison program in which he accepts volunteer inmates to be guinea pigs for drugs he is working on that he hopes will help curb humans’ criminal personality traits, in the hope of keeping more people out of prison. While generally safe, the drugs can be dangerous, and so in exchange for taking the risk, the inmates are housed in a rather fancy minimum-security prison, complete with some pretty nice living conditions and freedoms. These drugs are administered in packs which connect to the body, and the dosages are all controlled virtually with the help of Steve’s trusted assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio).
Enter inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) who agrees to help and is one of Steve’s most cooperative test subjects, mostly because Jeff feels terribly low and worthless, due to the crime he committed which got him sent to prison in the first place. When he’s not being tested, he’s friends with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who’s harboring a dark secret from her past as well.
Everything is hunky-dory until Steve begins to ask Jeff and some other inmates to do some weird things, like having sex with another inmate Heather (Tess Haubrich) while Steve controls how attracted or unattracted they are to each other. And when things grow even more bizarre and dangerous, Jeff begins to question Steve’s motives, and so he does a little snooping and what he finds out is— of course— that things aren’t as they seem!
No surprise there.
SPIDERHEAD pretty much remains mediocre throughout. Its story is mildly interesting, mildly disturbing, but not overly exciting or mind-blowing. Honestly, throughout most of the movie I had a “so, what?” vibe going on. I was never all that invested in what was happening to the characters or their stories. While I understood Jeff’s plight, I never really cared for him all that much, and Steve is pretty much a one-note character without any real motivation other than to be the villain in this one by film’s end.
The screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, is a mixed bag. The dialogue is really good, and there are some memorable exchanges between Jeff and Steve, but the story never becomes more than a standard melodrama. When we finally find out what is really going on, it’s not that explosive a revelation. And the characters, while fleshed out well enough are all kind of— boring. This comes as a surprise because Reese and Wernick are the guys who wrote the DEADPOOL movies and the ZOMBIELAND movies. Go figure!
Visually, SPIDERHEAD is impressive to look at, but like a lot of other Netflix films, it suffers from not being all that cinematic. It plays like a TV movie. It was directed by Joseph Kosinski, who is receiving high praise these days for his work at the helm of TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022).
Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller do work well together, and their scenes together are the best in the movie. However, overall, Hemsworth plays Steve as a one-note guy, and even with the charismatic Hemsworth playing the role, at the end of the day, Steve’s boring.
Miles Teller fares better as Jeff, and while I have not been a Teller fan over the years, he gives the best performance in the movie. He makes Jeff a real person, and his story arc is the most interesting and emotional in the film. Sadly, it’s a story we’ve seen countless times before, where a character hasn’t meant to, but his reckless actions led to someone else’s tragedy, and he’s beating himself up over it because he can’t get over the guilt.
Jurnee Smollett is also solid as Jeff’s friend and possible girlfriend Lizzy, another character with a tragic past.
Themes of loneliness, abandonment, and letting down those you love, permeate the proceedings, but the film never rises to the level in terms of plot where these themes can take center stage. They’re there, but in the background of a tale that struggles to come to life.
I wouldn’t rush home to see SPIDERHEAD, but on a rainy summer night, when there’s not much else going on, it might be worth a look.
And for Chris Hemsworth fans, it’s something to watch before his highly anticipated Marvel movie THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER (2022) opens in theaters on July 8.
SPIDERHEAD is a minor diversion, a mild science fiction thriller that possesses a good script and solid acting, but remains low-key and muted throughout, mostly due to plot points that fail to resonate because they have been done before and done better.