The number one movie on Netflix right now, at least in the US, is Spiderhead. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, lately of Top Gun: Maverick, and adapted from a George Saunders short story by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Spiderhead is a soft rock dystopia about a Modernist paradise prison where there are no guards and an “open door” policy, as long as the inmates agree to participate in a drug trial that sees them pumped full of mood-altering pharmaceuticals. Jeff (Miles Teller, collaborating with Kosinski for the third time, following Only The Brave and Top Gun: Maverick), is one such subject. In one trial, he and a partner are dosed on “Luvactin”, which is basically a love potion, and they have wild sex. He is also subjected to “Laffodil” and “Verbaluce”, the latter of which improves his vocabulary and communication skills.
Spiderhead is not a bad movie, but it’s also not subtle, so just as the names of the drugs are obvious cues as to what they do, the moral of the story is very simple: drugs are bad. At least, morally dubious drug trials are bad. I guess more broadly, this is a “for the greater good never leads anywhere good” cautionary tale. There’s also a bit about self-forgiveness tacked onto the end, but really, this movie is not about self-forgiveness. It could have been, with a little more meat on the story bone, but Spiderhead is a classic Reese-Wernick joint, slick and quick and style over substance. If anything, Reese and Wernick have stripped Saunders’ story, “Escape from Spiderhead”, of much of its meaning by altering the ending (I won’t spoil it, but the movie is considerably happier).
Also, Spiderhead reminds me of 1995’s Harrison Bergeron, an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s short story and another dystopic warning about taking “for the greater good” too far. Like Spiderhead, Bergeron isn’t bad, per se, but it stretches a simple premise further than it was meant to go and ends up flattening Vonnegut’s sharply made point. Some things exist in their correct medium, and like Vonnegut’s story, Saunders’ story makes its point succinctly. Stretching “Escape from Spiderhead” into a 90-minute movie robs it of its punch, particularly because no one on the creative team found anything to properly fill the runtime. We’re treated to a yacht rock soundtrack, Chris Hemsworth in a series of summer suits, Miles Teller with an inexplicable baby mullet, and occasional landscape shots of the coast of Queensland, Australia and the Whitsundays (Top Gun cinematographer Claudio Miranda is a regular Kosinski collaborator).
While Spiderhead is light on meaning, it is very watchable, and it’s very effective as a travelogue for Australia’s coastal tourism. Teller and Jurnee Smollett are fine as a pair of inmates, they don’t have tons to do, but they make the absolute medium of a chemistry-free romance. The real star of the show is Chris Hemsworth, relishing a chance to shift into dirtbag mode as Steve, the amoral warden of the prison and administrator of the drug trials. We rarely get to see Hemsworth like this—Bad Times at the El Royale was four years ago—but he is GREAT in dirtbag mode. Spiderhead isn’t as smart as it thinks it is, but it’s an easy breezy watch and a solid movie for the summer dystopic set.
Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix.