Miles Teller steals the show in another minor Netflix Original


Miles Teller steals the show in another minor Netflix Original

Still riding the peak of Top Gun: Maverick’s box office smash in recent weeks, director Joseph Kosinski is firing off another, less bombastic project on Netflix that originated in Australia during the two pandemic years that delayed the release of the vehicle Tom Cruise.

Based on a short story by George Saunders originally published in The New Yorker, “Spiderhead” imagines a not-so-impossible reality in which a pharmaceutical company experiments on inmates with chemicals that can drastically alter a person’s behavior.

In an increasingly rare sighting of the Australian actor on screen without his Thor attire, Chris Hemsworth plays a sleazy villain, Steve Abnesti, who is responsible for this unethical pursuit but is still a pawn in the larger corporation he claims that he forces him to push the limits of the health of his subjects. He’s full of smiles and pleasantries, but he’s hiding something sinister. Up in his Bond villains lair overlooking the ocean, on the island that houses this supposedly more humane prison, this is the kind of wacky character the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal or Oscar Isaac could make unforgettable; Hemsworth, not so much.

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Steven and his sidekick Mark (Mark Paguio) attach a device to the prisoners’ spikes that releases a drug cocktail that they tailor to each prisoner. Having Steven controlling every substance administered from his phone feels instantly fitting to our addiction to handheld devices and absurdly simple given what’s at stake. Before a new dose enters the inmate’s bloodstream, Steve requires everyone to verbally “confirm” their approval, creating the illusion of agency.

Racked with guilt over a car accident that landed him in prison, Jeff (Miles Teller) has become Steve’s favorite. Early on, he resists a drug that replicates sexual arousal and post-coital bonding with multiple partners; Those scenes eventually fall into homophobic tropes about prison rape that sound fishy. But Jeff’s romantic interest is in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a fellow inmate, and Steve will later use their relationship to try a different mix that causes paranoia.

“Spiderhead”, which oozes 80s nostalgia with its groovy soundtrack, is reminiscent of titles like “The Island”, “Ex Machina”, “High Life” and “Swan Song” by Michael Bay. But it feels derivative and only superficially invested in its big ideas about second chances and the conundrum of appropriating the bodies of people society deems irrecoverable.

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Co-authors Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool”) lend tonal variations that mimic how the drug tests disrupt test subjects’ emotions, while over-emphasizing the humor of some of the scenarios with the much darker undertones inherent in the premise.

Set almost entirely in a single location with no windows, the film feels cinematically dull, unfolding in white rooms and hallways that could have come from any office building. Even the touch of Academy Award-winning cinematographer Claudio Miranda, whose ambition often shines through as in Top Gun: Maverick, flattens out almost as intended, except for in a notable flashback sequence. One gets the impression that the filmmakers are after a certain smoothness that’s never quite apparent given the generic sets and tech gadgets that seem oddly lo-fi. The filmmaker also resorts to needle drops too often to infuse the film with an air of artificial cool.

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A great actor who anchors those efforts with a compelling performance, Teller carries a somber demeanor. It’s only when he’s on screen that the aftermath of this perverted game becomes as heinous as it is. At some point during the ordeal, Jeff and Steve spend an evening together under the influence of a drug that causes uncontrollable laughter; While the former admits that his father’s abandonment is his greatest wound, Jeff’s piercing gaze conveys his burning desire for freedom.

None of the other prisoners, who presumably all agreed to this arrangement, get much screen time or backstories. Given that the only inmates at the center are those whose crimes are attributed to neglect rather than malice (Jeff and Lizzy), the story’s message of forgiveness doesn’t apply to the others. As narrow-minded and philosophically comfortable as that feels, the creators show little intention of delving into the implications of their “provocative” but not-so-obvious conceit. This level of engagement might have been sufficient for a short story, but depth is obviously lacking here.

“Spiderhead” can be entertaining as long as you don’t dig too deep. Like many recent Netflix originals, it’s neither substantial nor unique enough to warrant much attention beyond its first weekend of release – just another sci-fi thriller with a nonchalant antagonist. Too bad audiences can’t get any of the laugh-inducing liquid on screen.

Spiderhead premieres June 17 on Netflix US.

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