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Review: ‘Spiderhead’ is a Talent Filled But Flawed Think Piece

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From the moment that Netflix announced Spiderhead, it was impossible to ignore that this film had all the makings for a great movie. Starring and produced by Chris Hemsworth, along with Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, the talent was there in full force. The film was also directed by Joseph Kosinski, the same director that has brought the world to its knees with Top Gun: Maverick

In addition, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (known for Zombieland and the Deadpool trilogy) wrote the screenplay, adapting George Saunders‘ short story. There is so much talent on and off the screen bringing Spiderhead to life, I was beyond excited to see this movie now that it has finally dropped on Netflix .

Did Spiderhead live up to the hype, or did it leave me disappointed? Strap in fam, because we have a lot of ground to cover. 

[Warning: Spoilers are referenced in my Spiderhead review below! Read at your own risk.]

Life is just a prison… or something like that

Spiderhead is the future of penitentiaries on an island in the middle of nowhere. The prisoners aren’t locked up in cells, but instead have large comfortable bedrooms, get to wear regular clothing, and can go anywhere they want within the facility. Relatively all of the prisoners seem happy in Spiderhead and at times, as the viewer, you almost forget they are in a penitentiary.

In return for this freedom, everyone has assigned chores to complete, such as cooking and cleaning. They also have to consent to experimentation at the hands of Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). Steve experiments with different drugs, injected into the prisoners from a box installed in their lower backs. Each drug has different effects on a person, such as causing them to become overwhelmed with fear, love/lust, or even induce a euphoric high.

Every prisoner must also give their consent for the injection of drugs each time, which at first seemed like a good thing. However, as the story unfolds asking for consent felt more like a formality or a way to make prisoners think they are safe. That couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Our main protagonist Jeff (Miles Teller) seems to be the model prisoner at Spiderhead. He is the focus of many of the experiments and has a good rapport with Steve. So much so that many times Jeff is sitting in the control room with Steve and not in the experimentation room like the other prisoners. Jeff is also running away from his trauma, the death of his friend while drunk driving – the same event that landed him in jail. 

While Steve’s experiments seem quasi-benign at first, the spider web he spins begins to get out of control. While some of the earlier ones are still questionable, such as giving two people a love drug and watching them have sex, they pale in comparison to some of the twisted experimentation to come later in the film. Wishing to test the lasting effects of the love drug N-40, Steve asked Jeff to choose between two women he slept with previously while on the drug. 

Unable to choose, Steve goes full crazy scientist, inducing psychosis in Heather (Tess Haubrich) thinking it’ll force Jeff to admit his feelings for her. Instead, it resulted in Heather killing herself in a scene that made me recoil. Quickly, the facade falls from Spiderhead as Jeff and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) attempt to leave the facility and away from Steve’s crazy eyes. 

Reasons to watch Spiderhead

The acting in this film was fantastic, specifically Smollett’s performance as Lizzy. The emotion that she brings to each and every scene was electrifying. The one scene where viewers find out why she is in prison was incredibly heartbreaking and also award-worthy. I can’t think of a single film or show I have seen Jurnee Smollett in that she doesn’t excel at, however, this performance stands out as something special.

Chris Hemsworth was also great as the head scientist at the Spiderhead facility. The delicate balance he had between the crazed leader willing to do anything to get his results, and someone also dependent on the drug packs was interesting. I was almost shocked to find out he was using drugs daily, with increasingly higher dosages. There were many times I was freaked out but how calm and cool of a maniac Hemsworth portrayed Steve.

Things that just didn’t make sense

As the film progressed, some of the plot points seemed to fall apart for me. It was interesting to see Steve also using the drugs he was administering, but they fail to explain why he is doing so. The ultimate reason for the experimentation was to test an obedience drug, meaning that prisoners were just doing everything they were told. So why would Steve Abnesti, the man behind the company Abnesti Pharmaceuticals that is conducting the experiments, be giving himself the obedience drug?

My early thought was that he was being controlled or used by another for the experimentation, but that didn’t feel right after seeing the last name match the pharmaceutical company. Perhaps it was to test the obedience drug, to see how far a scientist is willing to go compared to a prisoner. Again it’s never explained which felt like a huge flaw.

Nothing confused or bothered me more than the bingo card. At one point in the film, Jeff sneaks into Steve’s desk and finds a bingo card covered in gold stars. Peeling them off, Jeff discovers that the designations for each drug are a letter-number combo found on the bingo card, such as N-40. There’s no explanation about the bingo card and the designations, or how the two became paired during these experiments. A bit more explanation this could have been such a cool plot point, but instead, it left me annoyed.

Overall impressions of Spiderhead

Even though parts of the movie left me scratching my head and at times I wondered what the point of the film was, I am still glad that I watched it. The story itself was a great think piece, though at times the message felt weighed down with attempting to be too smart and clever. Chris Hemsworth and Jurnee Smollett were exceptional, even Miles Teller was likable as our guide through the prison system that is Spiderhead. I think most people will enjoy it, though it may take two views to understand some of the finer points.

My rating for this film: 

★★★/ ♥♥♥♥

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Brian Kitson

Working hard to bring you the latest news and thoughtful analysis of all things nerdy!

Brian Kitson has 358 posts and counting. See all posts by Brian Kitson