In May of 2022, director Joseph Kosinski and actor Miles Teller teamed up to make Top Gun: Maverick, a cinematic triumph that turned out to be the best movie of the year. Three weeks after that film’s release, these two have teamed up again, with writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland), to make a Netflix science fiction thriller titled Spiderhead. In a chamber piece set in a state-of-the-art prison, Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) foregoes orange jumpsuits and iron bars for an agreement to test emotion-controlling drugs on the prisoners.
Somehow, the duo that made the biggest masterpiece of the year has also made one of its biggest disappointments. What could have been a thrilling, contained story with fascinating science fiction concepts instead ends up as a bland, monotonous tale of prisoners, drugs, and nothing else. Some films, such as Crimes of the Future and Men, feature fascinating concepts but don’t always stick the landing in the execution. Unfortunately, Spiderhead is another addition to that collection, serving as a strangely dull movie with minimal intrigue beyond the concept.
The setup for the movie is okay — prisoners being used as drug test subjects exist in a believable dystopian society, and many of the drug effects are shown visually. Whether the movie is throwing sex on the screen to show the results of the love drug or getting terrified performances out of its actors to show the effects of the fear drug, Reese and Wernick are trying their best to keep the audience watching. The fact that this movie still feels so remarkably empty, despite all the talent in front of and behind the camera, is a miracle.
Perhaps the movie doesn’t entirely work because of the lack of conflict. It takes nearly an hour for something interesting to happen, giving the film a bit of heart-pumping tension. However, the movie can be pretty inconsistent. Spiderhead feels most tonally similar to Ex Machina, another contained sci-fi thriller with a limited amount of characters. The difference is that a movie like Ex-Machina keeps you guessing, not letting up the suspense and keeping you wrapped up in the characters. Spiderhead has few situations or captivating characters, feeling like a one-note story with a mystery that isn’t as gripping as the writers hoped.
The characters are mildly interesting. Steve is the prison overseer who administers the drugs, and we learn that his father left him when he was eight. This comes back into play in a very subtle way that feels unsatisfying. The prominent prisoner we follow is Jeff (Miles Teller), who is in jail following an incident in his past. The same goes for a fellow prisoner, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), but none of this feels as interesting as it could be. The idea that Jeff wants redemption for his past, which is why he agrees to the drug experiments, is fascinating. It’s just that the movie does little beyond that by the end. All the pieces are lined up for a gripping thriller, but when it’s time to play, nearly everything fails.
The result is a movie that is less thought-provoking and more aggressively lame. Hemsworth’s charismatic persona and Teller’s dramatic performance are not enough to keep this film afloat. Everything culminates in a bonkers final act that’s surprisingly awful. Once again, the tone is all over the place as the film ends with a jarring shift to a needle-drop action sequence that feels all over the place in a so-bad-it’s-good way. What had the potential to be a darkly funny, suspenseful, claustrophobic sci-fi story amounts to none of that, leading to a colossal miscalculation that you won’t care for once the credits roll.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 4 equates to “Poor.” The negatives overweigh the positive aspects making it a struggle to get through.