Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
Released June 17, 2022, streaming exclusively on Netflix
Chris Hemsworth may be one of Hollywood’s most underutilized, underappreciated stars. As Thor, Hemsworth became a household name, but the MCU is never where he’s done his best work. One doesn’t have to venture too deeply into Hemsworth’s non-Marvel filmography to realize that the actor’s font of charisma remains grievously untapped by Disney. From his mind-meltingly hot performances in Rush and Blackhat to his breakthrough comedic role in the 2016 Ghostbusters reboot to his mesmerizing turn as a villainous cult leader in Bad Times at the El Royale, Hemsworth has proven again and again that he’s more than the God of Thunder. Even as Thor, the actor has savvily adapted the role to his strengths to become a fan favorite against all odds, after years of getting upstaged by Tom Hiddleston.
Spiderhead, Joseph Kosinski’s new sci-fi film, works as the latest piece of evidence in the case for freeing Chris Hemsworth from Kevin Feige’s death grip. Miles Teller is ostensibly Spiderhead’s leading man; and with Kosinski’s Top Gun: Maverick (also starring Teller) still selling out theaters three weeks into its release, Spiderhead seems poised to be discussed as the duo’s straight-to-streaming B-side. But, as the lengthy preamble to this review should have hinted, Spiderhead is all Hemsworth’s. He receives top billing, and his performance as scientist Steve Abnesti provides the movie’s main fascination.
Spiderhead, adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick from a George Saunders short story, takes place entirely within an experimental facility of the same name. A Brutalist hideaway in the jungle, Spiderhead houses convicted felons who have volunteered to participate in drug trials in exchange for better living conditions. Jeff (Teller, out of his depth) serves his sentence here. When he’s not participating in experiments, he performs janitorial and catering duties with fellow inmate and love interest Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett, giving one hundred percent in material that doesn’t deserve it, as usual). Abnesti and his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) oversee the experiments, which involve dosing the test subjects with descriptively named drugs like “Phobica,” “Laffodil,” and “Luvactin.” Test subjects are also routinely dosed with a substance called “Verbaluce,” which compels them to describe how they are feeling for the sake of the scientific record. Abnesti administers these drugs via remote through a “Mobi-pack” affixed to the base of each inmate’s spine.
Although Jeff is the film’s main character, the effects of the drugs that he’s given are rarely shown subjectively through his point of view. Rather, the audience monitors the drugs’ effects from the outside, which inadvertently aligns the camera’s viewpoint with Abnesti’s observational position. This leads to a few striking passages where cinematographer Claudio Miranda dispassionately captures the disturbing dissonance in the dosed inmates’ behaviors. One test subject giggles, framed in a static mid-shot, as Verlaine relates horrific statstics from the Rwandan genocide. In a later scene, another inmate/test subject has been given a drug that overrides his natural hunger/satiation response. This inmate is briefly glimpsed stuffing himself with food until he vomits. Jeff, when dosed with Luvactin, finds himself chemically obliged to have sex with two women he doesn’t want to have sex with; these scenes of “love” making are shot through a pane of glass, from the scientist’s side of the lab.
A weirder, more daring film would have plunged viewers into Jeff’s altered states with more gusto. As it is, Spiderhead seems content to keep the proceedings cerebral rather than visceral. Again, this mimics Abnesti’s view of the world and Spiderhead’s activities rather than Jeff’s experience of his sentence at the facility. It’s no wonder, then, that Abnesti emerges as the film’s most interesting character. The scientist is the worst kind of villain—one who thinks he’s a pretty chill dude, all things considered. (Abnesti’s taste in easy-listening music, which he pipes through the facility’s speakers, reveals volumes about him.) Hemsworth plays Abnesti like the coolest teacher at your high school, the one who “related” to the students and always acted like he was one of them rather than an authority of any sort. Abnesti never lets Jeff forget that all of the test subjects at Spiderhead volunteered to come to the facility. Abnesti prides himself on treating the inmates with “mutual respect” and running a facility without locks or bars, as well as providing the inmates with a better quality of life than they would have had at a state penitentiary. Hemsworth stays placid even as the experiments get weirder, exuding a calm sense of control. It’s easy to imagine, for a while, why the inmates at Spiderhead trust Abnesti; Hemsworth weaponizes his star power here.
It gradually becomes clear that the questions of consent at Spiderhead aren’t so clear cut, and Abnesti’s dream of a world where there’s a drug to control every negative emotion could potentially rob everyone of their humanity. Spiderhead raises thorny ethical and philosophical questions, but it ultimately eschews exploration of these quandaries in favor of a more digestible ending. (The very end, a bit of hackneyed voiceover, almost ruins the film entirely.) Spiderhead doesn’t end up being more than a slick little diversion, enjoyable enough for two hours. Unfortunately, its web isn’t sticky enough to keep you in its clutches after the credits roll.