Director: Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio, Tess Haubrich
2022 Netflix Original film Spiderhead is by no means a bad film, but how this and Top Gun: Maverick were directed by the same person is quite difficult to believe.
Tom Cruise is known as being a powerful presence on the set of his films, acting as lead star and producer for each of his projects, but he must have played a blinder to get director Joseph Kosinski to inject so much personality into Maverick given the comparative lack thereof in Spiderhead. So rarely have psychedelic drugs, gruesome deaths and on-the-nose existential questions seemed quite so boring.
Miles Teller (also of Top Gun: Maverick) stars as a prisoner serving a sentence in an expensive, privately-funded prison, his relative freedom of sleeping on his own and being able to interact with others exchanged for his body being the test chamber for a number of enhanced, mind-altering drugs. Chris Hemsworth, the film’s co-producer and first-billed star, plays the prison’s overseeing scientist turned psychologist; a man with a Cruise-esque intimidating niceness, someone who hides his manipulative behaviour behind a smile and a feigned sense of familiarity.
Spiderhead is presented to us as if a mystery. As such, it encourages us to start positing a number of questions that could provide the backdrop for some interesting thematic explorations: What did Teller’s character do to land himself in such a situation? Will the answer to that question test how we feel about him? If what he did is terrible, would it make his position as a lab rat more acceptable? If so, what would that say about us and our wider society? Sadly, so much of that potential is wasted, the director and his team of fellow creatives choosing instead to personalise the tale with unneeded romance and an almost awkward deconstruction of the cult of personality; one that sees Chris Hemsworth really leaning into the acting part of his performance. This is not Ex Machina by any means, not artistically but certainly not philosophically, and for a film about testing enhanced science in a high-tech isolated environment, that comparison is a fair one.
Chris Hemsworth is all of his character and then some. Forget Thor’s almost endearing over-cheeriness, this is all of the acting techniques turned up to eleven (minus total realism). He’s fascinating to watch, yes, but not good. He’s more a lot of sounds than one really good song. His character is the one charged with running the facility, testing the subjects and creating amateur-hour psychological testing scenarios for his prisoners to partake in. What the prisoners do doesn’t matter, it’s what he does that matters. But what he’s doing means nothing as regards the myriad of existential or philosophical questions raised, he is instead simply existing at a heightened level, like Kosinski and Hemsworth himself thought that his character needed little to work with so long as Hemsworth hammed up every possible line and strutted around like Tim Curry in Muppet Treasure Island. In this way, Spiderhead becomes a star vehicle for the MCU star, but this film isn’t about Chris Hemsworth’s character at all, it’s about Miles Teller’s… and that’s a problem.
Miles Teller’s Jeff is subjected to a small range (relative to the promise of the trailer and the set up of the premise, at least) of mind-altering drugs that are injected into his back via a small pod (think a rechargeable battery pack). His drugs are then administered to whichever degree Hemsworth’s Steve insists courtesy of remote control (which looks suspiciously like an iPhone). As such, Jeff takes centre stage within the script itself, his journey being the hero’s journey we’re all used to going on, his backstory being the one of interest, his reaction to “harm this person or this person” moral conundrums being the heartbeat of the film’s purpose. We follow him, both in the present and through flash back, yet Teller is billed at number two, and the thematic explorations that can be explored in line with his situation therefore play second fiddle as well.
Teller himself is fine in the lead role. He’s hardly as charismatic or appealing as he has been for much for his career, but it’s tough to blame him. The tone of Spiderhead is all over the place. Is this Ex Machina or is it an action-comedy? Is it psychological thriller or something to appeal to the masses? Nobody knows. There are certainly moments in which comedy is played up – some sex scenes are played for laughs despite their nature as being non-consensual, and the film does nothing to explore or deconstruct the problematic nature of this – meanwhile the film has all the trappings of an action blockbuster, such as beautifully blue oceans, plane rides, beautiful architecture and an attractive cast. Maybe Teller signed up before Hemsworth was put front and centre, and maybe Kosinski had something more cerebral to work with before Netflix tried to make it more marketable, but the finished product is one that is messy, ill-defined and lacking in direction. Miles Teller is fine, but fans of Top Gun: Maverick should probably watch his earlier work on The Spectacular Now and Whiplash instead.
Joseph Kosinski’s at-times divisive career takes another turn with Spiderhead, this latest offering (now available on Netflix) playing more like his ill-fated Oblivion (2013) than Maverick or even Tron: Legacy. Spiderhead is a film with so much unrealised potential, plastered together with expensive-looking sets and locations but presented with less creativity than the average ‘Black Mirror’ episode, all with a focus that is pulling in separate directions. A lot is bound to be written about its problematic take on governmentally sanctioned mind-altering drugs in the era of vaccination protests, but even aside from that Spiderhead doesn’t succeed on many levels. Spiderhead isn’t philosophical, it isn’t very often interesting, and it certainly struggles to be entertaining.