An occasionally fun but mostly unsatisfying movie
It’s just typical, isn’t it. You wait all year for one Joseph Kosinski-directed movie starring Miles Teller and then two come along all at once! Their first collaboration, the much-delayed Top Gun: Maverick, is currently soaring to the top of the box office (at the time of writing), and their second, Spiderhead, is now available on Netflix.
But while the Top Gun movie is an action-packed thrill-fest of a spectacle, Spiderhead is a much more muted affair. This isn’t to say it’s not worth a watch, but if you’re expecting a thriller that will get your heart racing, you may be a little disappointed. You might also be disappointed if you’re expecting somebody to appear with the body of a man and the head of a spider, as the title of the movie refers to the penitentiary where Steve (Chris Hemsworth) conducts his experimental research on his incarcerated victims.
One of the prisoners at the facility is Jeff (Miles Teller), and he ended up there after causing the death of others in a car accident. As unfortunate as this is, his time at Spiderhead is made bearable because of his blossoming relationship with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). They are mostly free to wander the cold and clinical halls of the facility together as are the other inmates, so unlike most prisons, they aren’t confined to one cell for hours on end.
Still, it’s not all fun and games for those who have been incarcerated as the disarmingly charming Steve needs them for his experiments. Mercifully, they aren’t as gruesome as you might expect so as I alluded to a moment ago, there are no scenes of humans being merged with arachnids to form any kind of malformed monstrosity.
Instead, Steve tests mood-enhancing drugs on Jeff and co. These aren’t all bad – some of them evoke happy feelings – but there are others that cause them to feel depressed and suicidal. There is also a serum that drives them wild with passion, usually culminating with them taking their clothes off and having unbridled sex under the watchful eye of Steve and his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio).
It soon becomes clear that Steve doesn’t have the best interests of the inmates at heart. He tells them the tests are beneficial for society but like Jeff, who begins to distrust Steve’s motivations late in the movie, you will start to realize there is something more sinister going on.
The movie is based on George Saunders’ short story ‘Escape from Spiderhead,’ which was originally published in The New Yorker. I haven’t read the story so I can’t compare the two but I hope it was more explanatory than the movie’s script, which never really delves into Steve’s character or his reasons for carrying out the drug trials. By the movie’s end, he is just a caricature, yet another mad scientist who wants to experiment on others for an unexplored selfish gain and not for the good of humanity.
As such, Spiderhead is quite frustrating. There is certainly much to enjoy, largely thanks to the great cast and the sometimes witty screenplay. But as the reasons for Steve’s actions are largely left hidden, beyond the simplest of explanations as the movie runs its course, it’s not as satisfying as it might have been. This is a shame, as some of the other characters get a lot more backstory and character depth, Jeff and Lizzy included.
Of course, this might have been intentional – we are supposed to root for Jeff and Lizzy and not for Steve – but why can’t we have a movie with an identifiable villain? For the most part, Spiderhead‘s script has been intelligently written, with themes centred around free will and ethical responsibility. If more attention was paid to Steve and his motivations, this would have been a far better movie.
Still, Hemsworth has fun with his role, so he’s enjoyable to watch, despite the thinness of his character. Teller is good value too as are the other actors. And the movie, on the whole, is entertaining, even if it doesn’t cohere into a satisfying whole. You’ll probably have a good time while watching it but if your expectations are high because of Kosinski’s astonishing work on Top Gun: Maverick, you might want to lower them a little as this is never as riveting as that high-flying spectacle of a movie.
Read More: Spiderhead Ending Explained
Verdict - 6.5/10