Director: Joseph Kosinski
Writers: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Charles Parnell, Jurnee Smollett
Cinematographer: Claudio Miranda
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
Streaming on: Netflix
In Joseph Kosinski's Top Gun: Maverick, released in theatres last month, the rugged beauty of the landscape fades into the background as he opts to fix his camera firmly within the confines of the cockpit instead, pushing in on the pilots' sweat-slicked, panicked faces as they withstand extreme conditions. The director's new Netflix streaming release, Spiderhead, takes place on more solid ground, at a remote island jail where prisoners volunteer as test subjects for experimental drugs, but employs the same intriguing contrast — the lush paradise outside is merely a setting for the characters trapped within private hells of their own making.
Adapted from George Saunders' short story Escape From Spiderhead, the film initially adopts the playful gaze of tech bro and prison warden Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). His sense of wonder at being able to chemically manipulate his subjects' emotions sets the tone even as the murkier implications of his work immediately become apparent. In one scene, he watches as a construction site moves a prisoner to awed tears. Another inmate lapses into uncontrollable laughter on hearing about mass genocide. Konsinski films these experiments with a light, cheeky touch, either showcasing the prisoners' reactions first and then gradually revealing the unexpected stimuli that's eliciting them, or presenting the stimuli first and letting the horror of the inappropriate reaction dawn on the viewer gradually. He repeats the same experiment with different participants, relying on how viewers' familiarity with the setting will lead them to anticipate what's coming next with either amusement or terror.
What's filmed with far less finesse are the flashbacks that reveal what led to prisoner Jeff (Miles Teller) being incarcerated at the facility. Attempting to atone for a drunk-driving accident, Jeff submits to these sometimes-painful trials after being sold a vision of bettering humanity. It's the first clue that while these subjects may have volunteered to have their emotions engineered, their feelings were being manipulated long before. It's an intriguing idea that the film squanders by focussing on predictable 'aha!' moments instead.
Kosinksi excels at crafting harsh worlds that still brim over with signs of hospitality (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion), and the brutalist architectural design of the prison is in contrast to how its inhabitants are given free run of the place. An open-door policy allows them to drop in on their warden unannounced. Arcade games dot the communal area and the camera lingers on gourmet snacks being prepared. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick establish the cushy sense of freedom these prisoners enjoy, while simultaneously hinting at how all of it is a cruel, precariously structured illusion. Steve involves the prisoners in discussions about his drugs' effects and spells out what he intends to manufacture them for, which only gives the film an undercurrent of menace — anyone willing to divulge this much has got to be concealing so much more. While any initial terrors are more imagined than actually carried out, the film steadily amps up the danger. Konsinki, however, operates best when he's operating with restraint. A single image of a bloodied handprint on a sweater communicates much more about complicity, abuses of power and the stain of guilt than a roomful of blood spattered across plexiglass walls.
Hemsworth's compelling performance combines the comedic physicality of his Ghostbusters (2016) work with the eerie menace of his Bad Times at the El Royale (2018) cult leader character. As Steve, he articulates every sentence with the cadence of someone making one long sales pitch. Teller and Jurnee Smollett (as fellow inmate Lizzie) get to showcase their range in scenes in which they react outlandishly to commonplace stimuli, but are saddled with characters whose clichéd backstories serve as a shorthand to explaining their motives.
Spiderhead is a story about the choices people make and the regrets that haunt them after, which makes it all the more disappointing that every twist film eventually introduces is the most obvious choice. Thorny philosophical questions are broached, only to sputter out into a series of generic action setpieces. The film's immaculately crafted atmosphere begins to feel superficial, given its unwillingness to engage with any larger themes. There's a nice bit of symmetry towards the end — the film is bookend by moments of laughter in vastly different contexts, and two joyrides, the first of which derails a character's life, while the second enables it to truly begin. It's ironic, however, that for a film about precisely curated emotions, the Netflix algorithm winds up flattening out any promise of depth.