Netflix’s Spiderhead, directed by Joseph Kosinski, is a movie about its own budget. It can afford a couple of big stars, so it has them — never mind whether the actors in question are an actual match for the material. The story plays out on a steely, vacuum-sealed set that lacks texture or warmth, which is by design: This is ultimately a story set in an experimental prison ward. But the movie makes frustratingly little of these environs, just sort of posturing and looking good, as if what matters most to the project is the ability to display its means, the ends be damned.
The premise is alright: The titular Spiderhead is a penitentiary wing that counts among its wards a guy named Jeff, played by Miles Teller, and a woman named Lizzy, played by Jurnee Smollett. It is an unusual institution. Beyond mixing genders, Spiderhead bucks the conventions of prison attire (everyone seems to be dressed as they please), is distinctly lacking in cages or guards, and is stingy in its corporal punishment. Jeff, Lizzy and the others have jobs, such as custodial work or snack duty, but otherwise, by and large, they roam free. And towering over it all in stylishly professional blazers and a smart set of glasses is Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth).
But the presentation is all so calculated. The smartly-curated needle-drops sprinkled throughout the movie are, in the most generous light, appropriately sociopathic. An Ellen Degeneres-style walk-out set to a familiar pop tune doesn’t quite hit the same for a guy who’s essentially a prison warden — a guy who also happens to be pumping people full of drugs to line his own pockets. It’s as evocative as it is suspicious: There’s something off about this man. It’d be a solid joke if the most cynical entertainment being made today hadn’t already learned how to tell it — learned, that is, how to get credit for self-awareness, how to ward off the suspicion that it’s just another meaningless, toothless, joyless piece of so-called art by being in on the joke. There are worthwhile movies that attempt ostensibly little and accomplish even less while having the guts to be ridiculous about it. This isn’t one of them.
“No bars, no guards — that’s only possible in a collective of mutual respect,” Abnesti says, crowing like the dreamboat avatar of Angela Davis’ nightmares. If not for a reminder from Lizzy that she misses the outdoors, and if not for the fact that Abnesti shares a kitchen with his inmates, you’d almost forget how enclosed the place is. You could mistake it for an ambitious tech startup’s earthy-yet-modern digs, what with the stone walls and cute hors d’oeuvres and, most of all, the smartphone-operated pieces of hardware dangling from their lower backs.
That hardware, called a Mobipack, is the catch — because of course there’s a catch. All the freedoms enjoyed at Spiderhead, by even the people convicted of involuntary manslaughter, come at a price. The price is Steve Abnesti. Sure, they get benefits denied to the people stuck in gen-pop. But they also serve as guinea pigs. When Spiderhead starts, a man seated in a white room is being goaded into laughing at bad jokes — and then, at despairingly unfunny, violent facts. He laughs, laughs away. Nothing here is funny. How does he do it? A drug — one in a series of potions that can inspire loving attraction or desperate fear, loosening the lips or (in one dark turn) inspiring suicidal ideation. Imagine what you could do with such power. Abnesti’s targets — he basically wants to eradicate bad habits and attraction to the wrong things — seem oddly humble at first, but only at first. If you can use fear to deter people from “bad” behaviors, there’s great power in getting to decide what counts as bad behavior. And if you can nudge people into intimacy, you can nudge them into new, strong social arrangements, manifesting the kinds of instincts that might, say, lead someone to save one person’s life over another.
The best thing about Abnesti, on paper, is how far he’s willing to go with this. For a curious stretch of this movie, you’d be forgiven for thinking Miles Teller had been sentenced to a life term on a stud farm, fucking his afternoons away at the behest of the voyeuristic matchmaker Chris Hemsworth. It’s strong material because it’s gross, and it’s gross, in part, because your instinct may be to laugh at first. Which makes it prickly, ethically delirious, fit for questions and discomforts that Spiderhead lacks the nerve or curiosity to make a meal of, beyond the obvious
That’s too bad, because the idea of Abnesti is worth sitting with. He’s a tech villain, a scourge that’s proliferating. In 2014’s Ex Machina, Oscar Isaac played an inventor-villain who, in a moment that became a meme, subjected us to a sad little choreographed number, a little awkward-genius sexy duet that he performed with one of the lady-bots populating his house. This remarkably asocial act was his social life in a nutshell. Today Isaac’s deviant loser-genius seemingly has children everywhere, from Amanda Seyfried’s Elizabeth Holmes, who shoulder-bopped to Lil Wayne on TV’s The Dropout in a pitch-perfect fit of cringe, to, in Spiderhead, Hemsworth’s Big Pharma entrepreneur, who rich-guy jives to the Cure’s “More Than This,” getting high on his own supply as he wiggles off beat.
Don’t you get it? He’s not like those other girls — he’s unhinged. We didn’t need to see him dancing and drugging himself to know this because, by this point, we’ve already seen him turn Miles Teller into a fuck-machine “for science.” It doesn’t really satisfy as a glimpse into his character, because Hemsworth’s performance — annoying but likable, rather than sociopathically nice — doesn’t quite cohere into a character. Hemsworth, with his ability to merge brash meatheadedness with charismatic-surfer chill, is the Thor we deserve; but he can’t play the villain behind a Cuckoo’s Nest fuck-farm that counts Miles Teller as its top recruit. Throwing glasses on him to fashion him into a mastermind is a joke that was better told by Michael Mann’s Blackhat, which knew when to take those glasses off. In Spiderhead, he’s wasted. The role feels like it was written for Jake Gyllenhaal in his weird period — his Nightcrawler and Okja era, when those good looks were distorted into leering creepiness, and the awkwardness was equal parts mesmerizing and repulsive. It doesn’t seem as if Hemsworth was encouraged to bring that here. Really, why would you want him to?
There are souls at stake in a story like this. Though for us to really notice that, the movie itself would need a speck of soul, or at least a genuine, original sense of humor. Spiderhead has neither. It’s boring. When the emotional revelations come, as they do like clockwork, any surprise they offer or feelings they dredge up are purely the result of manipulation. When details that’d been left out of a recurring flashback are finally revealed, for example, their nominal purpose is to suggest a character’s guilt-ridden denial: He represses the worst part of his crimes because he cannot face the worst of those crimes. Spiderhead doesn’t make nearly as much of that drama as it could. It reduces everything to personal struggles, bad things happening to likable people that we’re inclined to forgive because they do not forgive themselves. Why doesn’t this character remember these until-now repressed details? Simple: The movie told him not to.
Ziploc cinema such as this, as airtight as it is airless, only really comes to life if the actors get a chance to breathe life into it. Only Smollett manages to give her role any personality, which may be because the movie isn’t about her: Like Spiderhead’s free-roaming prison population, she’s given the latitude to feel like a person. Not so for her co-stars. Teller, a more interesting actor than most of the roles he’s been given, is a sturdy vehicle for the movie’s central emotional crises, bringing his normal-ish guy dopeyness to bear on a role that an algorithm could have written after scanning his IMDb page — meaning, sure, the role suits him. Yet Spiderhead makes about as much use of Teller’s best qualities as Abnesti’s experiments do of their subjects. He’s little more than a means to an end — the end of the movie.
Spiderhead was adapted from a short story by George Saunders, but halfheartedly and with decidedly less wit. The movie’s made up its mind not to cut too deep on the intellectual, as Saunders’s writing often does, so instead it leans into the human element without fully allowing its characters to become human. What we get in the end is a professionally mediocre approximation of both: underwhelming in ways that could only have been intentional, which is worse.