Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller are locked inside Joseph Kosinski’s slick prison thriller for Netflix


Source: Netflix

Dir: Joseph Kosinski. US. 2022. 107 mins.

“This place can really mess with your head,” observes one of the incarcerated characters in Spiderhead, a close-quarters thriller that enjoys playing mind-games with the audience. Adapted from a George Saunders short story, the picture feels like a well-orchestrated lark which allows director Joseph Kosinski to ponder existential questions about free will and second chances within the appealing framework of a high-tech prison drama that doubles as an evil-scientist horror film. Chris Hemsworth struts with flair, cheekily portraying the mercurial genius overseeing a top-secret experiment which is being conducted on a convicted felon played by Miles Teller, and the results are both engaging and disposable, offering game viewers an exercise in suspense and off-kilter atmosphere. 

Netflix will start streaming Spiderhead on June 17, where it will benefit from the fact that this is Kosinski’s first feature since the mega-hit Top Gun: Maverick. Hemsworth and Teller’s star power will help, too, as will a narrative that feels novel and familiar at the same time. 

Hemsworth plays Steve, who runs Spiderhead, a remote facility housing select prisoners who have agreed to be part of an elaborate drug test. One of the guinea pigs is Jeff (Teller), who like all the participants has a device sutured to his body which administers different serums that alter his emotions or mental state. Steve insists he’s trying to find drugs that can improve humanity, but Jeff becomes suspicious — especially when Steve begins toying with another prisoner, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), whom Jeff has developed feelings for. 

It will be no surprise to learn that Steve is up to no good — if anything, Spiderhead encourages the audience to savour the well-worn genre tropes being deployed. The pleasure comes from trying to figure out exactly what’s going on — and wondering whether Jeff can do anything to stop it. As signalled by the knowingly cheesy yacht-rock music that Steve blasts through the facility’s speakers, Spiderhead isn’t meant to be taken all that seriously, despite the horrifying events that will transpire.

Production designer Jeremy Hindle, who previously collaborated with Kosinski on Top Gun: Maverick, gives this vaguely futuristic prison a minimalist look that’s like a mixture of a sci-fi spacecraft’s interior and a menacing open-concept office space. Steve fancies himself a benevolent warden, letting his prisoners live relatively unencumbered in Spiderhead, but Kosinski (Torn: Legacy, Oblivion) shoots the decor with such icy reserve that Jeff is understandably on edge around him. 

At first, the experiments seem fairly harmless, with Steve and his deadpan partner Mark (Mark Paguio) carefully monitoring how different drugs affect Jeff and his cohorts, but soon the tests’ insidiousness is apparent. Some serums boost the subjects’ amour or heighten their paranoia, while some send them into fits of laughter or drive them into a deep well of emotional anguish. That latter sensation is generated by Darkenfloxx, which the prisoners come to fear — once they experience its terrifying impact on them, they’ll do anything not to be exposed to it again, a fact that Steve will use to his advantage.

As Jeff learns more about Steve’s ulterior motives — and we discover more of Jeff’s backstory, which will explain why he’s so haunted by the reasons that sent him to jail — Spiderhead teases the viewer in the same way that Steve manipulates his prisoners with the different mind-altering serums. Joseph Trapanese’s score balances between electronic and orchestral music, creating a sense of unease that only grows once Spiderhead’s terrible secrets start to emerge. 

But Hemsworth’s playful turn hints at the picture’s tongue-in-cheek tendencies, giving us a would-be visionary who is arrogant and irreverent in equal measure. To be sure, this is a done-to-death character type, so it’s a relief that Hemsworth brings enough specificity to the role, portraying Steve as so lethally insincere and serenely condescending that it’s hard to get a bead on him. By comparison, Teller is admirably earnest, playing Jeff as someone who would do anything to right his past wrongs, and the two actors’ contrasting styles — slightly theatrical versus stripped-down — create an additional layer of tension.

Spiderhead’s plotting is sometimes sloppy, and the ending doesn’t quite achieve the tossed-off panache Kosinski seems to be aiming for. But the film has arresting moments and a distinctive vibe, content to serve up narrative cliches with wry twists. Jeff wants nothing more than to escape Spiderhead, but audiences may relish being locked up inside this slick, pleasantly shallow entertainment.

Production companies: Grand Electric, The New Yorker Studios 

Worldwide distribution: Netflix

Producers: Eric Newman, Chris Hemsworth, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Agnes Chu, Geneva Wasserman, Tommy Harper, Jeremy Steckler 

Screenplay: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, based on the short story ’Escape From Spiderhead’ by George Saunders, as first published in The New Yorker

Cinematography: Claudio Miranda

Production design: Jeremy Hindle

Editing: Stephen Mirrione

Music: Joseph Trapanese

Main cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett