‘Spiderhead’: Chris Hemsworth’s pharma thriller on Netflix has idiocy in its veins
Prisoners lead comfortable lives in exchange for being drug guinea pigs in the heavy-handed debacle.
Even with catchy 1979 Yacht Rock tunes such as “Rise” by Herb Alpert and “Crazy Love” by Poco and “The Logical Song” by Supertramp wallpapering the soundtrack for the jaw-dropping debacle that is “Spiderhead,” the title of this film had a certain cartoon theme song playing in my mind, only with different, custom lyrics:
This movie makes your brain feel dead
Spins a story that defies belief
When it’s over you’ll feel sweet relief
Here comes the Spiderhead …
Netflix presents a film directed by Joseph Kosinski and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Rated R (for violent content, language and sexual content). Running time: 107 minutes. Available Friday on Netflix.
Sorry about that, but I’m trying to keep my sense of humor while shaking off the cobwebs of this misguided sci-fi psychological would-be thriller, which falls flat with a resounding thud despite its pedigreed credentials, which include a New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by the acclaimed author George Saunders as the source material; Chris “Thor” Hemsworth once again gamely trying to play against action-hero type, and “Top Gun: Maverick” director Joseph Kosinski reunited with his “Maverick” co-star Miles Teller. All this promise — and none of it pays off.
Hemsworth veers unconvincingly between charismatic quipster and menacing sociopath as one Steve Abnesti, a pioneering pharma scientist who is in charge of a minimum-security prison that looks like it was lifted directly from the Bond Villain Blueprint, what with the slate-gray design and the remote island location. (Employing one of the oldest tricks in the Make ’em Look Smart playbook, Hemsworth wears oversized, wire-framed glasses — but they just make him look like the model for an online eyeglass store.) The inmates at this facility have committed some serious crimes, and yet they each have well-appointed rooms that look like studio apartments, they’re free to roam about the grounds in comfortable outfits, they enjoy nightly appetizers and video games in the communal area, and they’re encouraged to fraternize with each other.
The catch? You have to participate in a series of exercises involving the intake of experimental, mind-controlling drugs, which Steve claims will one day lead to some kind of Utopian society — but we’re starting to think maybe Steve is never going to get that Nobel Prize he’s pining for. With only one assistant (Mark Paguio), who is devoted to Steve but beginning to feel some ethical conflicts, and a record-keeping process that involves Steve doling out gold stars and scribbling madly in a notebook, Steve’s methods seem highly questionable — and the drugs he’s dispensing have names that sound like something out of the old “Batman” TV series:
- When you’re given a dose of Luvactin, you’re instantly sexually attracted to the person in the room with you.
- Even if you don’t feel like sharing, if Steve pumps a little Verbaluce into your veins, you’ll become a chatterbox.
- Laffodil acts like laughing gas, Phobica will make you instantly paranoid and afraid of something as innocuous as a stapler — and Darkenfloxx will envelope you in fear and self-loathing to the point where you’ll try to kill yourself just to ease the pain.
Teller’s Jeff is your basic good guy who made one terrible mistake that ended two lives and cost him his freedom, while Jurnee Smollett’s Rachel seems to be an equally likable and empathetic character — but Rachel’s past holds an even darker secret than Jeff’s. As Jeff and Rachel begin to develop real feelings for one another, Steve’s manipulations grow ever sinister, as he forces Jeff to play God and make cruel decisions regarding the fates of more than one fellow inmate. (When one experiment goes horribly wrong, resulting in a shocking death, Steve shrugs it off, saying the victim was doing really well until she committed suicide. It wasn’t her finest moment, says Steve. Gee, Steve: ya think?)
The production design on “Spiderhead” is pretty cool; it’s as if we’re watching an update on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” staged in an Ikea store. Once in a while, the absurdist humor hits, as when we hear Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” on the soundtrack — a selection so on-the-nose it has to be a joke. “Spiderhead” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick proved with the “Deadpool” movies and “Zombieland” that they can expertly mine genre material for dark laughs and entertaining action, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and where it all goes wrong here — but wrong it goes. After about 90 minutes of mediocre, tone-deaf, heavy-handed storytelling, the final act flew completely off the rails and slid into my file of DMs, i.e., Dumbest Movies. In more ways than one, this is one of the dopiest films of the year.