Review by C.J. Bunce
With hits Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, The Dig, Only the Brave, and Top Gun: Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski seems to be batting a thousand, and his best work may be his new science fiction movie, Spiderhead. Now streaming on Netflix, it should remind you of the days before sci-fi blockbusters, when science fiction tales by great futurists became the next amazing story you’d see on the big screen. It also has the genre world’s best actors, with Chris Hemsworth as a pharma genius slash mad scientist running a penitentiary in the vein of A Clockwork Orange, and Miles Teller as his chief inmate, test subject and guinea pig. Fresh off of The Offer, and co-starring in Top Gun: Maverick, Teller’s career trajectory seems to only be going up. Compared to the usual direct-to-Netflix fare, especially compared to its record of sci-fi genre films (basically that’s ARQ, iBOY, The Cloverfield Paradox, Extinction, I Am Mother, The Midnight Sky, and IO), Spiderhead is in a different league entirely. Think THX-1138, Minority Report, Ex Machina, and Orbiter 9—Spiderhead is a movie you’ll wish you were able to catch in the movie theater.
A remote island is the setting for a unique gulag, where inmates listen to the best of classic smooth rock and perform their duties in what feels more like a college dormitory environment than a lock-up. Participation of inmates is voluntary, but they’re required to have a drug administering device implanted on their lower backs and continually consent to chemical tests. The nature of those tests is only known to the man running the drug trials, Hemsworth’s Steve Abnesti, an easygoing friend to everyone at first blush, who runs the prison like the Stanford University prison experiment covered in Psych 101. Each prisoner’s file is kept strictly confidential, and the audience only gets a glimpse at what Miles Teller’s character Jeff got locked up for. Some of the tests are Kinsey-esque in their approach (the sex is primarily included for laughs), but most seem to follow a path of psychological manipulation. Many things are what they seem, but in good sci-fi fashion, a few things aren’t.
Assisting Hemsworth’s Abnesti is his data manager and co-conductor of experiments Verlaine, played by Mark Paguio. Helping Teller’s Jeff is Birds of Prey and Lovecraft Country’s Jurnee Smollett as Lizzy. Director Kosinski knows how to eke out only what you need to know right when you need to know it, and a key question is what role Lizzy and Verlaine really are playing in this story.
Hemsworth is fantastic as the mad scientist whose mood changes with each scene and new drug, a Val Kilmer inspired performance (Real Genius more than The Doors)–he’s a Bond villain that could be playing Bond himself. Teller shines by holding back, playing scenes like a young Kevin Costner might have. Together these are equal talents that are great fun to watch together.
If you loved the creepy uncertainty and satisfying final act of Ex Machina, appreciate using sci-fi to explore stranger subjects plucked from real life as done in A Clockwork Orange and Minority Report, and you want more of the kind of suspense (and remote setting) we saw in Archive 81, Passengers, and You Should Have Left, you won’t want to miss Spiderhead. Catch it now, only on Netflix.