'Spiderhead' Is a Satisfyingly Nasty Sci-Fi Morality Play
One dose of Verbaluce, please.
Whether they're set in the far future, a few weeks from now, or an alternate version of the past, even the weirdest and darkest science fiction stories are mirrors to our own present. Blade Runner imagined a future in which the boundary between man and machine was nearly nonexistent. RoboCop tore into the militarization and privatization of the urban police force. Star Wars was about what if a guy with a sword and a scary helmet kept chasing you. Relatable stuff like that. Joseph Kosinski's Netflix drama Spiderhead uses the bones of one of George Saunders' nastier short stories to craft a morality parable that is as timely as it is fun.
Jeff (Miles Teller) lives in the Spiderhead, a high-tech private prison facility housing a group of convicts who have volunteered to participate in an experimental program rather than wait out their sentences in a state-run prison. Jeff and his fellow inmates have been fitted with "MobiPaks," mechanical cartridges attached at the base of their spines that hold vials of different types of liquid, within which are prototypes of mind-control drugs with marketable nicknames like "Verbaluce" and "Laffodil." Daily, Jeff visits an observation room run by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), the guy in charge of the facility who carries out various experiments on the somewhat willing participants, testing the efficacy of the company's new drugs. An inmate injected with the laughing serum will crack up even at the most tragic of statements, while another under the influence of the lip-loosening serum will describe in verbose detail whatever is put in front of him.
Jeff has struck up a close friendship with another inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), but the ongoing experiments and his residual guilt from the crime that got him put in prison in the first place take a toll on his mind, making him feel distracted and weird. The experiments get more and more personal, and more dangerous. The facility is built on a remote tropical island apart from civilization, but things seem to be happening in the world outside that are connected to the drugs. Something is up in the Spiderhead, and the suspiciously cheery Abnesti seems to be hiding the project's true nature.
The creepy premise is adapted (by Deadpool guys Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) from George Saunders' story "Escape from Spiderhead," which was first published in The New Yorker in 2010, and, if you've never read him before, is a perfect introduction to Saunders' ability to weave together the funny and the macabre. Spiderhead keeps the acid tone of the story (though sadly missing a lot of the bizarre flowery language), as its characters are subjected to more and more manipulative treatments. Hemsworth especially is a total star, playing the exceptionally off-putting tech bro type with a joke-tossing, chair-scooting casualness that masks an underlying cruelty. And, along with Top Gun: Maverick (also directed by Kosinski), this may be the most charming onscreen that Miles Teller has ever been.
The production design is slick, with rooms full of modern, monochrome furniture, retro arcade games, and angled concrete, perhaps the nicest looking prison ever put on film. There are recurring jokes that flit in and out of the story—everyone at one point is on high alert for a bathroom wall defacer code-named "Shitfinger." It does fall occasionally in the bottomless-Netflix-budget trap of endless needle-drops disguised as an in-world iPhone playlist, but if you like Supertramp and Thomas Dolby as much as Abnesti apparently does, you won't be complaining.
The final third of the film, when Jeff and Lizzy discover the true dangers hiding within the Spiderhead and realize their only choice is to run or die, defangs Saunders' much crueler ending, on par with the meanest Philip K. Dick dystopia. Jeff and Lizzy's crimes, while traumatic for both of them, are trivial compared to the wide-ranging implications of the film's big reveal. But it works with the way the movie has flipped its themes around: Spiderhead reads, by and large, as an indictment of the American prison industrial complex and the lengths which people will go to to view those who have committed crimes as less than human. In a world as terrifyingly familiar as the one Spiderhead creates, escape is the only option.