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‘Spiderhead’ movie review: Uninspiring sci-fi thriller that refuses to go all-out

A still from ‘Spiderhead’

A still from ‘Spiderhead’ | Photo Credit: Netflix

Just weeks after the release of Top Gun: Maverick, filmmaker Joseph Kosinski has yet another release, Spiderhead, which coincidentally also has shots of a lead character piloting a plane. But Spiderhead is nothing like the former, rather, a dystopian sci-fi story that is in the same vein as Black Mirror and other such thrillers we now get to see, particularly on Netflix.

Spiderhead follows the life of a convict named Jeff (played by a Kosinski staple, Miles Teller), who is housed at the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center, a special facility on a secluded island. Spiderhead is not like any ordinary prison. It houses inmates who have volunteered to be in this open-door facility, with high-end infrastructure akin to the prisons in Norway. The invisible committee that rules over the facility asks for only one condition to be fulfilled: that the inmates agree to be part of the medical experiments that Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), the manager of the facility, conducts. These sinister experiments are meant to assess the potency of drugs that can alter and induce emotions. Vials of these drugs are placed inside a device attached to the lower backs of the inmates, which is controlled through a software on Steve’s smartphone.

It is bewitching and yet baffling to witness how these drugs evoke a specific emotion in the inmates. Luvactin (or N-40) is the ‘love drug’ that makes one see beauty in everything. Verbaluce (B-15) makes a person more eloquent, while Laffodil (G-46) sends one into a fit of laughter. The conflict of the film comes when Jeff, who is a part of the Luvactin experiment, witnesses the death of an inmate who was injected with a dangerous substance. He begins to grow suspicious of Steve’s actions and questions if the whole motive of conducting these experiments is to help humanity.

Spiderhead
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Cast: Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett
Runtime: 107 minutes
Story: An inmate housed at a special penitentiary grows suspicious of the dubious experiments that are conducted with mind-altering drugs

The introduction scene in the film has Steve administering the Laffodil drug to an inmate named Ray (Stephen Tongun), who begins to crack up on hearing one-liners and puns. The diminishing quality of jokes doesn’t affect Ray, and he eventually begins to laugh at morose facts, like genocide. Choosing Laffodil to introduce us to this world is a good writing choice. It instantly pulls us into the gloomy setting, hinting at the threats that these drugs can pose, while also not revealing the trump cards that the film intends to use later on.

In Spiderhead, writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick let the characters drive the plot. As the story progresses, it is revealed that Jeff’s life turned for the worse following a freak drunk driving accident that killed people closest to him. Weighed down by guilt and grief, his only resort was Spiderhead; Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a fellow inmate he has feelings for, is the only light in his tunnel. Surprisingly, even the antagonist of the film has a back story that is briefly touched upon, and Spiderhead rests upon the emotional undercurrents between these broken humans who are forced to live in confined boundaries. When it comes to the secondary characters, a great addition is that of Mark (Mark Paguio), an assistant to Steve. Mark is one of the nobler characters in this world, one whose endeavour to do good for humanity lands him in the wrong hands. The character refuses to become the cliche assistant to the evil supervillain and has a real purpose in how the plot moves. What’s disappointing with the character writing is that of Lizzy. Her back story is only briefly touched upon and she is reduced to just a narrative tool that would motivate Jeff to take a major leap in the third act when he already had enough motivation to do so.

Blame it on other new-age sci-fi dystopian titles such as Love, Death, And Robots and Black Mirror, the way the initial scenes in Spiderhead are written gives a sense of anticipation, of a major showdown that is due at the end. There is a twist as one might expect, but it is so cliched and unsurprising. It’s disappointing when a film refuses to go all-out with everything it has in its arsenal, and Spiderhead is a film that had tremendous potential for a grand third act even with its minimal geographical setting and a limited number of characters. Moreover, there is a drastic tonal change towards the end that doesn’t sit well as an aftertaste.

On the plus side, a major takeaway from Spiderhead is its music. Every track from start to finish sounds fresh, and, like the drugs administered, there’s a piece of music for every mood. When it comes to performances, Hemsworth seems to be having the time of his life as a uber-cool tech-savvy bad boy, who gets high on his own supplies and unabashedly uses the inmates like puppets. Both Hemsworth and Teller have done enough justice to these demanding roles, especially considering that such films are uncharted territories for both actors. If only their efforts were for a better film, the roles might have become career-defining. This film, however, seems to have been made for an audience who had taken a vial of Luvactin and a hint of Laffodil.

Spiderhead is streaming on Netflix.


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Printable version | Jun 21, 2022 5:21:13 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/reviews/spiderhead-review-uninspiring-sci-fi-thriller-that-refuses-to-go-all-out/article65548407.ece