There’s something sneaky about Netflix’s playfulness spider head. Directed by the elegant Chris Hemsworth, the sci-fi thriller is set in a remote prison research center where inmates are given a surprising amount of freedom in return for being subjected to experimental pharmaceutical treatments that scare them with insatiable hunger. It’s dark stuff. And yet much of the film has a light tone to hide its underhanded nature; Hemsworth dances to ’80s pop, and inmates spend their free time playing arcade games and making snacks of prosciutto and nectarines.
The whiplash between those moments and the dark premise is delightful, though ultimately spider head can’t stand the landing. It ends with a hiss – but it’s still a lot of fun watching Hemsworth try to dance along the way.
spider head is based on the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, which was first published in New Yorker in 2010, and directed by Joseph Kosinski (oblivion, Top Gun: Maverick), with the Dead Pool The script was written by the duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, an eccentric technology and science visionary who runs the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center. The prison itself is on what appears to be a remote island; The building is an intimidating Brutalist structure from the outside and looks like a 1975 vision of the future from the inside.
Spiderhead has an open door policy and appears to have no guards stationed. The inmates get all the jobs, like managing the snack bar or working as a janitor. However, what makes the place truly unique is the small device implanted on the back of each resident. Each is filled with a series of colorful vials containing different chemicals, and using a smartphone app, Abnesti can manipulate those chemicals to deliver a specific drug and alter the inmates’ conditions. The first example you see is a man who just can’t stop laughing; Abnesti begins by telling horrific father jokes before eventually reciting facts about genocide. But the giggles continue uninterrupted throughout the session.
There are drugs that make inmates uncontrollably horny or hungry, and another that turns every gaze into the most beautiful view the person has ever seen. A drug turns a simple object – like a stapler – into your absolute worst fear. As the prisoners experience the effects, Abnesti watches from behind a large glass wall, often giving instructions over a loudspeaker. When the inmates aren’t particularly talkative, he uses the app to give them a dose of “Verbaluce” to describe their feelings.
The idea of treating a subject class as a kind of guinea pig isn’t a new concept in fiction, though spider head is distinguished by sheer boldness and its shrill tonal whiplash. The experiments are obviously disturbing, but everything is hidden under a facade of privilege and the illusion of choice. The inmates join in, even when it’s really messed up – at some point a prisoner named Jeff (Miles Teller) has to decide which of his fellow inmates should get the worst mind-altering drug – because it’s better than a regular prison. They also have to explicitly state that they “acknowledge” the procedure before a dose can be administered, which makes it seem like they actually have a say in the matter.
It all ties together Hemsworth, who you’ll want to smack in the face as you watch. Exuding tech-bro privilege and optimism, he masks his nightmare experiments under the guise of saving the world (though we’re never told). All the while, he berates his poor assistant and constantly makes the inmates feel like they should be thankful for everything he’s done for them. At one point, he jokes about how much he’s benefited from looking so beautiful.
spider head is a steady rise in fear moving from the laughing drug to some truly horrific “accidents”. It also does an excellent job of hiding its true intentions – when Jeff finally puts the pieces together and understands what the experiments are for, it’s an incredibly satisfying twist. Unfortunately, from this point on the film doesn’t really know what to do with itself anymore. There are some action sequences and ending chases, but they all largely lead nowhere. spider head raises many intriguing (and depressingly relevant) questions, but doesn’t really have much interest in answering them.
But until that last act spider head works surprisingly well as a sequence of black mirror that has a real sense of humor. It’s a story that shows how far charm and the illusion of good intentions can get you — and if you’re Chris Hemsworth, it really is quite a distance.
spider head will stream on Netflix on June 17th.