Even with some obvious flaws, the vacation movies can turn out to be half decent…
On Netflix this coming Friday; Spiderhead borrows from some familiar science fiction beats to make for a passable ride; that is until it remembers that it needs an actual ending.
In a state-of-the-art penitentiary run by brilliant visionary Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), inmates wear a surgically attached device that administers dosages of mind-altering drugs in exchange for commuted sentences. There are no bars, no cells, or orange jumpsuits. In this ‘Spiderhead’ facility, incarcerated volunteers are free to be themselves. Until they’re not. At times, they’re a better version. Need to lighten up? There’s a drug for that. At a loss for words? There’s a drug for that, too. But when two subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), form a connection, their path to redemption take a twistier turn, as Abnesti’s experiments start to push the limits of free will altogether.
Based on The New Yorker short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead is directed by Joseph Kosinski (TRON: Legacy, Top Gun: Maverick) and written by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) this film really works quite well as it keeps us off guard with a ‘Yacht Rock’ soundtrack and interesting ideas surrounding the importance of free will in society but it falls off a cliff in an ending that feels like the cast and crew finally realized that they couldn’t stay in the Gold Coast of Australia during the middle of a pandemic forever.
Director Joseph Kosinski certainly knows how to tell a story and Spiderhead has a very distinctive look to it as it ropes us into the world that it is building. It’s not overtly original, but knows how to keep us engaged with strong ideas, catchy music, good performances and crisp pacing throughout. As he’s shown on multiple occasions, he doesn’t make boring pictures and considering that he made this while waiting for Top Gun: Maverick to come out, he’s done a pretty good job.
That being said, it’s ultimately the writing where this film goes off the rails. Adapted from The New Yorker short story called Escape From Spiderhead things just get a little weird, especially considering that this marks the first (we think) of films from The New Yorker as a production company.
There are actually six different production companies (not even including Netflix as global distributor) with 14 producers on something that had a minimal cast and limited locations. It’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen on a film that is basically being used as an excuse to work somewhere with great weather (and in executive producer Chris Hemsworth’s case) to be able to work close to his actual home.
Please don’t get it twisted, we don’t blame him (I mean we would) as he tears into this character that he knows he’ll be able to knock out of the park which just makes the whole movie quite a bit of fun but the power of some of the ideas at play here get lost in the overall tone of the piece.
This film is never quite sure if it’s trying to be serious, if it’s trying to be escapist fun or if it’s just trying to be a little silly. It all lacked a little bit of menace to it and as good as he was (along with the obvious fun he had in the role) Hemsworth as our “villain” never quite worked.
Miles Teller was his affable self as a tortured man trying to move on from the tragedies that got him in this situation and the interplay between him and Jurnee Smollett was good enough that we were getting invested in both of them as people. However when the narrative builds to its crescendo with the dramatic pay-offs we’re all hoping for, it all just ends like a fart in a windstorm as the last half of the third act plays more like an episode of Benny Hill then the dramatic stakes we’ve been building towards.
Ultimately though, Spiderhead is a fun little timewaster of a film that reminds us how funny Chris Hemsworth can actually be, but it would have been nice to get something with an actual ending rather than the rushed, cookie cutter ending that this film gave us. It was all fun, but it could have been more.