The 1970s was the era of movie paranoia, as numerous studio thrillers – from The Conversation to Capricorn One, The Parallax View to Marathon Man – specialised in making audiences feel uneasy as they munched their popcorn. New Netflix movie Spiderhead has similar aspirations, but it’s a little too quirky and self-aware to truly keep you on the edge of your seat.
In many ways it’s a throwback, a reminder of what sci-fi movies looked like before Star Wars turned effects-laden blockbusters into the gold standard. The cast is small, the action is minimal and the story is entirely driven by its dialogue – in fact, you wouldn’t need too many tweaks to make Spiderhead (based on George Saunders’ New Yorker short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead’) function as a serviceable stage play.
But beyond the retro themes, this is clearly a movie made in 2022, shot through a glossy Hollywood filter where the leads are all beautiful, and the bad guy is self-consciously, unconvincingly odd. Even when Spiderhead’s characters are baring their darkest secrets, you rarely buy that they’ve been anywhere near the real world.
Laughter isn't always the best medicine
You can’t fault the movie’s setting, however. Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is a morally dubious scientist, who presides over the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center in the sort of idyllic seaside location a Bond villain might build their lair. Working under orders from the unseen Protocol Committee, he conducts brutal tests on prisoners who’ve been relocated from higher security “State” facilities.
The price of living in a more open environment – where they can enjoy the delights of Etch A Sketches and copper cooking pots – is the agreement to participated in experiments where mood-altering drugs are administered via the “Mobipak” attached to the base of their spines. This device – clearly designed to look like medical equipment Nintendo would make if it gets bored of videogames – is capable of delivering carefully monitored doses, rigorously controlled by a bespoke smartphone app.
Director Joseph Kosinski, currently on a high from the brilliant Top Gun: Maverick, ensures the film looks great, giving the minimalist sets a disconcertingly clinical vibe. If only the script didn’t feel like it was constantly trying to undermine inmate Jeff (Miles Teller)’s hunt for answers…
With the Zombieland and Deadpool movies behind them, Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese are well established as screenwriters who specialize in funny. But while plenty of gags in Spiderhead do hit the mark, you can’t help feeling that holding a few of them back for Deadpool 3 – "shit finger", for example – might have served this movie better. It’s as if Netflix’s algorithms told them audiences would be reluctant log on to a prison drama that didn’t also have laughs, and nobody knew when to stop.
Meanwhile, the catchy-as-hell soundtrack is clearly supposed to jar with the darker aspects of the story, by the time you’ve reached the end of a mixtape featuring Supertramp’s ‘The Logical Song’, Thomas Dolby’s ‘She Blinded Me with Science’, Roxy Music’s ‘More Than This’ and Hall and Oates’ ‘You Make My Dreams’, the gag starts to feel overdone.
What's up, doc?
But the movie’s biggest misstep is its lead character, Dr Abnesti. He’s less a sinister mad scientist and more a chilled out entertainer, his “call me Steve” demeanour seemingly an experiment to see what would happen if The Office’s David Brent earned himself a couple of PhDs in pharmacology.
As he tries to be everyone’s BFF, dishes out gold stars, and gives his drugs groan-inducing names like “laffodil” and “luvactin”, Abnesti becomes less a character than a series of weird traits – you never quite believe that this is a man who’d risk the lives of his test subjects in the questionable name of science.
There’s also something weird about the casting. From the Thor movies to his hilarious turn in the underrated Ghostbusters reboot, Chris Hemsworth has frequently proved that he’s a brilliant comic actor. While it’s understandable that Netflix would want a genuine A-lister to headline a high-profile film like Spiderhead, however, this is not a role suited to a star who – in a previous life – would have been described as a matinee idol. In the ’70s, this is a part that would probably have gone to someone like Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson or Dustin Hoffman, performers who specialised in keeping their characters in shades-of-gray territory.
Although Hemsworth – one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – should be applauded for playing against expectations, it seems implausible that a guy like Abnesti, who seemingly has the world at his feet, would feel he has so much to prove at the altar of his new wonder drugs. Not even the script’s knowing winks about those leading man looks, and a half-hearted backstory about childhood trauma can come close to justifying his actions.
Netflix should be applauded for continuing to make the sort of mid-level movies that no longer make it into theaters – and Spiderhead undeniably has a decent stab at capturing the minimalist paranoia of a ’70s thriller. It turns out, however, that being made in 2022 has doomed it to follow the blockbuster blueprint Hollywood thinks its audiences want. This film could have been great, but it’s something of a square peg in a round hole.
Spiderhead is available on Netflix now.
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Richard is a freelance journalist specialising in movies and TV, primarily of the sci-fi and fantasy variety. An early encounter with a certain galaxy far, far away started a lifelong love affair with outer space, and these days Richard's happiest geeking out about Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel and other long-running pop culture franchises. In a previous life he was editor of legendary sci-fi magazine SFX, where he got to interview many of the biggest names in the business – though he'll always have a soft spot for Jeff Goldblum who (somewhat bizarrely) thought Richard's name was Winter.