Director Joseph Kosinski reconfirmed the unrivaled power of movie superstardom with last month’s Top Gun: Maverick, a sequel whose unlikely triumph can be credited, first and foremost, to Tom Cruise’s peerless charisma. Kosinski now does likewise, in a wholly opposite vein, with Spiderhead (June 16), a Netflix adaptation of George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead” (from his collection Tenth of December: Stories) that demonstrates the value of mega-watt magnetism by being largely devoid of it. Led by Miles Teller and Chris Hemsworth, the latter in a role that demands considerably more craziness than the actor delivers, this wannabe-loopy sci-fi effort is as bland as it is predictable and suggests that Marvel continues to manufacture hits but not, it seems, reliable marquee headliners capable of thriving outside of their comic-book environs.
This isn’t to say that Hemsworth, or Chris Evans, or Jeremy Renner, or their many MCU cohorts aren’t engaging and talented big-screen presences; instead, it’s to note that few have definitively proven their A-list bona fides in non-superhero ventures, and that trend continues with Spiderhead. Hemsworth is Steve Abnesti, who runs a big, gray, imposing facility on an unspoiled island in the middle of the ocean. Steve’s Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center is a scientific station where convicted criminals have chosen to reside, since it grants them escape from the terror of general-population prison life and a comfortable existence lounging around game rooms, cafeterias and hallways that mix concrete, wood paneling and colorful, stylish décor straight out of a ‘70s sci-fi movie. For those sentenced to spend years behind bars, it’s an enormous step up.
There’s a price, however, for such luxury: routine drug trials administered through a box affixed to the base of their backs that’s controlled by a smartphone app wielded by Steve and his right-hand man Verlaine (Mark Paguio). The narcotics Steve and Verlaine are testing on these powerless souls are of a mood-altering variety, and have letter-number designations as well as funny names that denote their effect on users. Laffodil, for example, causes patients to laugh uncontrollably even at horrible atrocities, as evidenced by an introductory scene in which Ray (Stephen Tongun) cracks up when told corny jokes and, also, when confronted with statistics about the Rwandan genocide. It’s emotional manipulation and control via vials of liquid, and Steve’s goal is as clear as day: Better Living Through Chemicals.
Flatly written by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Spiderhead doesn’t immediately lay all its cards on the table. Still, it’s depressingly easy to guess what’s going on here, and the fact that every logical assumption inevitably comes true drains the proceedings of any suspense and surprise. While Steve dopes up all of his guinea pigs, his favorite is Jeff (Teller), who we know from flashbacks is at Spiderhead thanks to a drunk-driving accident that ended in tragedy. He’s sweet on Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), who works in the kitchen preparing daily snacks for her incarcerated comrades, although Jeff decides to distance himself from her following trials of Luvactin, which creates overwhelming love and sexual desire for others—be it for beautiful Heather (Tess Haubrich) or sleazy Sarah (Angie Milliken).
Steve claims that his work is overseen by a protocol committee and, for a time, Jeff buys that idea, especially because Steve presents himself as a decent, jovial warden who treats his charges with respect and care, if not as borderline equals. Things start to change, though, when Steve forces Jeff to participate in doling out Darkenfloxx, a drug that instills crushing fear and panic in its users. Steve’s locked-up journal holds the key to his secrets, but most viewers won’t need to read its revealing contents to know that Steve is a bad guy. Rarely do bombshells fizzle out as drastically as they do in Spiderhead, whose eventual revelations play as merely logical plot points that have already been taken for granted as true.
Kosinski gussies up with this material with a score of Yacht Rock classics (how cheeky!) and a few of his trademark flourishes, including compositions marked by diagonal visual lines, remote and striking sci-fi compounds, and aerial vistas of aircrafts traversing enormous blue skies (and, in this case, boats skimming across vast aquamarine oceans). Formally speaking, Spiderhead looks gorgeous. Its stabs at satiric humor, alas, almost completely miss their mark. Any potential for a scathing sendup of the privatization of prison systems is squandered by Reese and Wernick’s script, which makes the lamest choices at every turn. It’s so apparent that everyone at Spiderhead is being exploited by Steve that, from the outset, there’s nowhere for the film to go but into foreseeable conflict. Worse, it refuses to embellish its familiar course with requisite gonzo flourishes; the best it can muster is a running gag about someone dubbed “shitfinger” who’s smearing feces on the walls.
Its stabs at satiric humor, alas, almost completely miss their mark. Any potential for a scathing sendup of the privatization of prison systems is squandered by Reese and Wernick’s script, which makes the lamest choices at every turn.
Without much in the way of invention, Spiderhead must rely on the appeal of its leading men. Both Teller and Hemsworth are capable of going through these motions, but that’s all they’re doing; Teller, in particular, is so muted by a tormented-but-fundamentally-good-guy part that he barely registers at all. Hemsworth, on the other hand, is granted the opportunity to indulge in a bit more flamboyance, flashing a series of winning smiles and making all sorts of convivial claims that intimate he’s really an overlord with a heart of gold. His performance, however, isn’t nearly brash enough to inject genuine weirdness and volatility into this staid saga. A lot of that is due to the screenplay at hand, and yet Hemsworth also comes across as an impossibly handsome stick figure of an evil genius, not to mention—as his late decisions make clear—a quite careless one as well.
As demonstrated by his turns as the hilariously goofy Thor, Hemsworth can be an immensely amusing and likable star. Spiderhead, though, corroborates the impression that Marvel makes its men rather than the other way around. Either that, or perhaps it’s simply proof that the only great contemporary roles for blockbuster-ready He-Men are the spate of IP-driven endeavors that have become modern moviegoers’ own drug of choice.