Netflix has done puzzlingly little to promote Spiderhead, an expensive Chris Hemsworth vehicle directed by Top Gun: Maverick‘s Joseph Kosinski. Is it an unsung masterpiece? Not exactly. But it’s certainly entertaining, outstripping the kind of generic action movies we typically expect from this kind of actor/director pairing on Netflix.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Miles Teller and Chris Hemsworth star in this clumsy but entertaining sci-fi/psychological thriller about an evil scientist (Hemsworth) who performs mind-control experiments on the inmates of a private prison.
Adapted from a 2010 short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead is a darkly amusing sci-fi thriller about free will and exploitation. Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett play prisoners in a high-tech penitentiary run by pharmaceutical researcher Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), who tests emotion-altering drugs on the inmates. It’s an exercise in manufactured consent, as Abnesti jovially pressures his victims into accepting artificial doses of fear, love, joy, etc. In exchange, they get to live in a chic bunker on a tropical island, enjoying more freedom and privacy than in a normal prison.
The overall vibe resembles a ’90s thriller based on a much-older concept—the kind of movie you can imagine starring Bruce Willis in his prime. Regrettably, Miles Teller is no Bruce Willis. He doesn’t bring much extra depth to his character Jeff, whose main role is to be a normal, relatable guy in a horrible situation.
Abnesti’s research falls somewhere between mind-control and the Stanford Prison Experiment, disguised by a veneer of Silicon Valley ambition. Writers Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (known for films like Zombieland and Deadpool) don’t offer much intellectual insight into the prison system or structural inequality, aside from the obvious fact that it’s bad to experiment on prisoners. The most fantastical element is the mere existence of this classy facility. Abnesti could undoubtedly get away with torturing convicts in an actual dungeon. But that wouldn’t make for such a fun movie.
Honestly, we’re not expecting Spiderhead to be Severance or Ex Machina. Firmly in blockbuster entertainment territory, the soundtrack of ’80s bops makes it clear the dystopian worldbuilding will never get too disturbing. In that context, I’ll happily overlook some incoherent details. There’s only one serious problem: This movie doesn’t understand what rape is. (Partial spoilers ahead!)
Toward the end of the first act, Abnesti’s experiments escalate to drugging inmates to have sex with each other. While it’s possible that a straight man like Jeff might not consciously understand why this is such a violation of his bodily autonomy, we’d still expect him to be traumatized. The same goes for the other inmates involved. But the film doesn’t treat this issue as seriously as it should, to the point where there’s even a gay-panic joke when two men are paired up for the love drug. An utterly tone-deaf detail.
Chris Hemsworth is the saving grace, offering a career-best performance. Confident and inappropriately upbeat, Abnesti builds on Hemsworth’s strengths: Comedy and larger-than-life hunkiness. Abnesti is a wealthy alpha male psychopath—a cheerfully guilt-free villain with a direct lineage back to American Psycho. Inviting a “we’re all pals here” kind of friendship with Jeff (a man over whom he has total control), he’s an obvious but effective avatar for manipulative authority figures—and the general concept of rich white bros using the world as their playground. Not exactly a new idea, but well-executed nonetheless, hinging on Hemsworth’s creepily jocular performance.
Dubious sexual politics aside, Spiderhead is easy viewing, balancing dark themes with sly humor and a retro brand of multiplex sci-fi storytelling. Netflix has an unfortunate habit of casting A-listers in fake blockbusters with minimal staying-power, but this one has genuine appeal—particularly if you like the idea of watching Chris Hemsworth use his powers for evil.