Medical Thriller '​Spiderhead' Is an Unpleasant Comedown

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich

Photo courtesy of Netflix

BY Rachel HoPublished Jun 14, 2022

Director Joseph Kosinski's quick follow-up to Top Gun: Maverick is a sci-fi thriller based on the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders. A premise that deals in high concepts about morality and technology, Spiderhead doesn't quite deliver on its intriguing offering.

Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) oversees Spiderhead, a facility serving as an alternative option to prison. In lieu of confined jail cells and orange jumpsuits, Abnesti provides inmates with dorm-like rooms, ping-pong and pool tables, and home cooked meals. In exchange for these amenities, each prisoner is fitted with a small pack on their back filled with vials of mind-altering drugs. During their stay at Spiderhead, Abnesti tests the effects of various "medicines" on inmates, from drips that make everything funny to ones that make you feel like you're on fire.

We're first introduced to Jeff (Miles Teller) and Heather (Tess Haubrich), who are given doses of a drip that creates a palpable attraction to one another — causing them to go from strangers to lovers in seconds. They both consent to a hit of Verbaluce. which stimulates their communication centres, allowing them to uninhibitedly express themselves far more eloquently than they normally could. Once the dosage wears off (which is controlled via smartphone by Abnesti), Jeff and Heather return to their base levels and become strangers once again. In this test case, Abnesti is particularly interested in whether the feelings of love and desire injected into Jeff and Heather will remain post-coitus without the drug.

As the film progresses, Jeff forms a connection with another inmate, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), and Abnesti's true motivations become clear. Their journeys intertwine in such a way as to test Jeff and Lizzy's resolve, both physically and mentally. 

Spiderhead explores the ideas of free will, ethical medical testing and the social implications of imprisonment. These issues are thought-provoking and could potentially illicit clever discourse, which is unfortunately absent in the film. Never going quite deep enough or even dark enough, Spiderhead feels superficial when attempting to grapple with its own principles. The concepts Saunders wrote about require a level of edge and grit to fully appreciate them, and Spiderhead plays it far too safe when employing the generic twists and turns of the genre. 

The shortcomings of Spiderhead aren't due to the performances, though. Hemsworth turns in a solid performance as the unsettling Abnesti in a role we haven't yet seen him in. Teller shines once again in his third collaboration with Kosinski, despite having to deliver some of the more eye-rolling bits of dialogue. And although in a smaller role, Smollett is charming and makes her presence felt every minute she's on screen.

It's easy to envision how Saunders' short would make for great cinematic fodder, but actually executing that vision is a different story. Perhaps an argument can be made that COVID restrictions hampered the production, but as it is, it'll take a huge hit of dopamine to elevate Spiderhead to its potential. 

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