Chris Hemsworth sheds his golden God of Thunder locks and takes on the role of a mad scientist (of sorts) in the new Netflix thriller “Spiderhead”. The film re-teams actor Miles Teller and director Joseph Kosinski who are both fresh off of the biggest box office hit of the year so far, “Top Gun: Maverick”. Based on the George Saunders short story “Escape From Spiderhead”, the film adaptation opens up with a thought-provoking setup. Sadly, it’s mostly undone by a movie that ultimately has nothing to say.
Again, things start promising. Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a dapper and charismatic scientist/prison warden for the state-of-the-art Spiderhead penitentiary. But this is no ordinary prison. The remote complex is also a research facility where clinical trials take place on prisoners who have volunteered to be human lab rats. In exchange, they get lesser sentences along with a semblance of freedom they wouldn’t normally get. They have their own rooms, they can move about without strict supervision, and they get finely cooked meals.
The first head-scratcher for me was the absence of prison guards. I mean there are literally no guards with the exceptions of two guys in pull-over polo shirts who pop up from time to time. Otherwise, it’s just Steve and his apprehensive assistant, Mark (Mark Paguio). The movie takes a weak swing at offering a possible explanation later on, but it’s hard to buy. These are essentially prisoners of the state and their crimes range from drunk driving to mass murder. Yet they roam around freely together without any concerns from the courts, law enforcement, or the government.
Inside the penitentiary, each prisoner is fitted with a white plastic dispenser on the small of their backs that looks like a cheap baby monitor. Inside of the contraption are five small vials of mood-altering chemicals with goofy names like “Darkenfloxx” and “Laffodil”. The dispensers are controlled by a cellphone app that Steve and Mark use during testing. They monitor their subjects and then record the results for some mysterious “protocol committee”. Unsure of the kind of work they’re doing? Don’t worry, the film is content with the tried-and-true line “The work we do could help millions of people.”
One such prisoner is Jeff (Miles Teller) who is in for accidentally killing his best friend while driving drunk. He’s haunted by the memories of that fatal mistake which makes him one of Steve’s favorite test subjects. When not being served sensory overloading “love drugs”, he hangs out with his love(ish) interest, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). Their lukewarm romance is supposed to add a little emotion. Instead, it never gets out of first gear.
Despite having a thought-provoking setup, “Spiderhead” is ultimately undone by a number of flaws that no amount of Hemsworth charisma can overcome. For example, the paper-thin story leaves so much unexplained. I can’t get into the details without spoiling things, but let’s just say the ending does more to emphasis the story’s shallowness than offer any meaningful answers. It also reinforces the premise’s utter absurdity. The movie is also surprisingly empty in terms commentary. It wants to say something yet has remarkably little to say about much of anything.
I did get a kick out of some things (take the hilariously on-the-nose needle drops such as Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science”). But the disappointingly bland and hollow “Spiderhead” needs a lot more than that to get by. Maybe if you can completely turn off your brain, ask no logical questions whatsoever, and simply accept whatever you see at face-value, “Spiderhead” could work for you. For me, that proved to be too much to ask. “Spiderhead” is now streaming on Netflix.