Captivating science fiction with a painfully messy third act

In Netflix’s Spiderhead, Joseph Kosinski would be better off sticking to the source material.


from Aurora starch ยท Published on June 17, 2022

If you want to walk on an unstable ethical rope for about an hour and fifty minutes, Spiderhead is the movie for you. Directed by Top Gun: of Maverick Joseph Kosinski and based on George Saunders since 2010 New Yorker story “Escape from Spiderhead“The film takes place in a futuristic prison called Spiderhead, which offers its prisoners unprecedented freedom. But at what cost?

Conceived by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), Spiderhead exists for a single purpose: to test innovative experimental drugs on prisoners. These drugs create a wide range of emotional states of their subjects: laughter, honesty, love – whatever.

Of course, experimental drug tests certainly come with significant warnings. In this case, Steve is not exclusively concerned with provoking “good” emotions; he wants to get the bad guys out too. And do it with Darkenfloxx: a drug that makes you sick, angry, and suicidal at once.

Understandably concerned about Steve’s outrageous use of the potentially murderous drug, prisoner Jeff (Miles Teller) begins to dig into the forces behind Spiderhead. Of course, he realizes that not everything is as peachy as senior officials want you to think.

What follows is an action film with a high concept and high stakes, which goes through a tense, captivating thread. Around the first half, Kosinski skillfully extracted the tension in history for as long as possible, hinting at some evil master plan at perfectly defined intervals. It also raises personal survival bets by creating a compelling and believable relationship between Jeff and other inmate Lizzie (Jerney Resin), whose chemistry is palpable.

But unfortunately, despite the carefully constructed beginning and middle, Spiderhead disintegrates into the third action, which, without giving too much, involves an inappropriate and poorly explained reverse. This is particularly disappointing because Saunders’ short story is clear, she puts all her cards on the table in the first few pages, and she has the confidence to believe that her arrogance and storytelling will be enough for the audience.

This means that Kosinski did not have to add too much to the source material to make a compelling film. Really, not only Spiderhead there is a fascinating premise, but there are also complex characters that are fun to watch effortlessly and do a lot of work on their own. Jeff is a refreshingly unconventional character, played by Teller as tense, restrained, restrained and introspective (although sometimes his inaction borders on being boring to watch). Steve is no ordinary villain either: Hemsworth plays him at the moment of his career, with a tense despair that is hard to watch, hardened by his tech brother. More than anything else, Steve needs to be liked.

But to his detriment, Kosinski refused to allow his film to enjoy great performances and even more source material. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernicke, who are usually known for collaborating on clear, concise scripts such as Deadpool and Zombielandthrow too much information Spiderhead’s script, such as different drug names and minor backstories of the characters. Not only that, but they also don’t do a great job of explaining many of their random threads.

But the problem is not just the overflow of the script Spiderhead. Although the film does not stray too far from its source material to the third action at the level of storytelling, the production design and cinematography everywhere hint at a bombastic, meaningless and overtired ending. For example, the Spiderhead facility inexplicably looks like something designed by a gorgeous modern architect for eight billion dollars. And there are almost a few helicopter landings missing. While this is obviously an attempt to evoke a sense of dystopian futurism, the astonishing extravagance makes little sense in the context of the plot. In the end, it only takes history out of the central ethical contemplation and makes it feel like high-budget action rather than thought-provoking meditation on life, death, and human rights.

The same goes for the film’s cinematography, which consists of a strange juxtaposition between simple, muted interior footage that highlights the power struggle between Jeff and Steve and wide shots of jets approaching over the gleaming coastline. Like the production design, the greatness of the cameraman confuses the philosophical nature of the plot and tonal Spiderhead feel more like action than anything else.

Such tonal oddities emerge in retrospect, where we learn why Jeff is in prison. Years ago, he got behind the wheel drunk and was involved in an accident that killed his best friend. It has to be an emotional scene that explains Jeff’s guilt. As well as the feeling that he deserves his attitude in Spiderhead. Everything is undermined by frantic editing and a strange vintage lens filter. Only he knows what Kosinski was trying to achieve with these stylistic choices. But the choice is too distracting to evoke additional empathy for Jeff.

When it came down to it, adapting George Saunders’ story would always be a complex act of balancing because of the inwardness and harsh philosophy inherent in his prose. Unfortunately, Kosinski’s attempts to add excitement to Saunders’ work eventually overwhelmed the script and confused the tone. It may be possible to create an adaptation of Spiderhead Escape that is both engaging and thought-provoking. But it is not.

Related topics: Netflix

Aurora Amidon spends her days running the Big Expectations column and trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the best movies of all time. Read her mostly embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon.

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