Universal Pictures | June 10, 2022 | 146 Mins. | Action, Sci-Fi, Adventure
SPIDERHEAD (2022) l Netflix | Release Date: June 17, 2022 | 100 Mins.
Two inmates form a connection while grappling with their pasts in a state-of-the-art penitentiary run by a brilliant visionary who experiments on his subjects with mind-altering drugs. Based on The New Yorker short story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” by George Saunders.
REVIEW BY: Darren Zakus
Spiderhead has some great ideas and a strong trio of lead performances from Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, but unfortunately the story does not progress enough to deliver the spine tingling science fiction experience the film strives to be.
Science fiction films based on short stories have a great track record in cinema with great films such as Blade Runner, Arrival, Minority Report and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And with director Joseph Kosinski behind the helm, hot off the success of Top Gun: Maverick and having directed one of the most underrated science fiction films of the 2010s, Oblivion, I was very excited to see what he and Hemsworth had cooked up with this film. And while the film has all the right plot elements to be a memorable science fiction thriller, the story drops the ball and squanders its potential, resulting in an entertaining enough but ultimately forgettable experience.
Set at a state of the art research facility/prison, the film follows a group of convicts who have volunteered to be part of an experiment involving emotion-altering drugs to reduce their sentences. Under the watchful eye of Hemsworth’s Steve, who runs the prison facility and leads the research, the convicts are given a larger sense of freedom and community while a darker purpose is hidden behind the testing going on at the facility. In terms of science fiction elements, you have concepts of emotional manipulation, free will, advanced pharmaceuticals used to control human behaviour, and punishment for violent crimes. It's a plethora of ideas to play with throughout the film, and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick set all the building blocks for what should be an interesting and terrifying exploration of these ideas in the first act. Never for a second is the run time a problem, as the film moves at a brisk pace, but the story loses its development momentum in the second act. The science fiction ideas at play are not fully explored, but merely repeated to drive home their importance, which does not set up the third act for success. The final act of the film is bonkers and is the right ending for this story, but with the second act dropping the ball on developing these ideas, the ending is not as shocking or dramatic as it could have been.
Luckily, the film has strong performances to shoulder the burden of this underdeveloped screenplay. Hemsworth is the standout as Steve, the warden of the prison, letting his goofy personality and comedic abilities shine throughout the film. It’s such a charming and charismatic performance from Hemsworth, instantly solidifying him as one of the biggest stars in the business showing that there is no role he cannot play. But while it’s all fun and games on the surface, Hemsowrth develops an unsettling and terrifying side to Steve that pays off incredibly well in the film’s final act, showing that he is so much more than the action hero we all know him to be. While at times his performance did see out of place in the first two acts of the film, as Hemsworth is incredibly bubbly and positive in a film that deals with a darker and serious subject matter, it hits all the right notes in the final act.
Teller is solid from start to finish, finding the conflict that his character faces throughout the film as he participates in the experiments while bonding with his fellow inmate played by Smollett. It’s a subtle performance, but Teller creates a sympathetic character and takes the audience along with him for a ride. Rounding out the main cast is Smollett, who is very good even if she is not given much material to work with until the third act. Her on screen chemistry with Teller is notable, creating a bond between their characters which is required for the third act to work in the film.
Visually speaking, the film looks great. The production design is sleek, helping create this near future world and this top secret facility. The set design is great, not relying on special effects to create the world of the film, which helps draw the audience into the story. This helps to create a claustrophobic feeling to the film, which helps build the tension which eventually boils over in the final act. But the best element of the film is without a doubt its soundtrack! Featuring hits from artists such as Supertramp and Hall & Oates, the needle drops don’t stop throughout the film and provide a soundtrack that you can rock out too. Joseph Trapense’s musical score is good, capturing the intensity and darkness of the film’s story, even if the score is underutilised throughout the film.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy myself watching Spiderhead, because it did the trick and passed the time, but it just felt like it was only scratching the surface of the story it set out to tell and could have been a lot more thought provoking and unsettling. Partly to blame is the writing, but at the same time Kosinski could have done a better job at elevating the tension throughout the second act to counteract the screenplay where it was lacking. It’s never a bad film, it’s just one that could have been so much better with a little more care and attention. Even if Spiderhead stumbles in the ambitious story it sets out to tell, Chris Hemsworth steals the show and with a great soundtrack, Spiderhead will satisfy science fiction fans even if it leaves them wanting more than the film can offer.