Released 2022. Director: Joseph Kosinski
SPIDERHEAD OPENS WITH A FEW JOKES AND SHOTS OF GORGEOUS LANDSCAPE as a seaplane glides to its island destination, buoyed merrily along by an upbeat 80s soundtrack. A state-of-the-art research facility where everyone appears so calm and happy it’s like an ad for a top-dollar exclusive resort. Gradually, the sun-shiny ambience will start to dim, the people will start to do terrible things and everything will come crashing down.
Before we get to that, this movie, based on a short story by George Saunders and adapted here by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, quickly informs us that the residents at Spiderhead, a research facility and – ominously signed at the entrance – a penitentiary, are jailbirds who’ve volunteered to become guinea pigs in some unspecified experiment in return for reduced sentence. Must be some heavy-duty experiments to cut prison time for people who’ve committed manslaughter.
Abnesti is the man at the control console. He’s chummy and easygoing, and played with a relaxed, let’s have a beer and chill type of vibe by Chris Hemsworth. He runs the show here but he likes to give the impression that the lab rats have a say. Before he turns the dial on his device to release his drugs, fed through vials inside a little case attached to the base of the spine of the residents, Abnesti would ask them to say the word “Acknowledged” to give permission. As if they actually had a choice.
One of these lab rats is Jeff, played by Miles Teller as a man haunted by the death of two of his friends when his car collided with a tree after a boozy camp fire. Unlike the others, Jeff is given preferential treatment by Abnesti, sitting like a friend next to the man in charge in the control room and being asked his opinion about what goes on. If only Jeff knew what Abnesti’s up to.
The experiments appear straightforward. When the participants are injected with the drugs, they behave in a certain way, regardless of the objective reality. They see beauty when they’re standing at an industrial dump. They develop instant attraction and jump each other’s bones without inhibition. They become terrified by some nightmare scenario only they themselves experience. In one of these sessions a woman is so traumatised by her fear she slashes herself. That’s when things start to get out of hand and Jeff discovers what Abnesti is really testing.
There are brief flashes of similarities between Spiderhead and Ex Machina, Both feature an uneasy relationship between a man who makes the rules and another man who tries to flip the game in an isolated environment of scientific experimentation. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Whilst Ex Machina is a tempered and considered exploration of complex themes, Spiderhead leans towards textbook entertainment and gives its little bag of ideas only cursory treatment. The movie wastes every opportunity to probe the moral questions it raises. There is no nuance to the performances and director Joseph Kosinski could’ve delve a little deeper into the tension between Abnesti and Jeff, or convince us of the feelings between Jeff and fellow test subject Lizzy, who spends most of her screen time plating up prison hor d’oeuvres.
Kosinski’s two previous big-budget sci-fi movies Oblivion and Tron: Legacy also deal with plots involving a man trapped behind a façade, an appearance from where he attempts to unveil the reality. You feel at times Spiderhead tries to convey something more, perhaps insights into mind control and the danger of pharmaceutical companies scrambling our neurons for profits, until the miserable ending proves decisively it’s never part of the plan.
Many movies can be described as over-reaching, when the filmmakers bite off more than they could chew and deliver a final print that’s less than its ambitious intentions. Spiderhead is the opposite, loaded with ideas and suggestions but its makers stop short of weaving the parts together beyond its predictable and limited scope. It barely reaches, let alone over-reach. Forget grey areas or ethical outrage or emotional conflict that could’ve made the movie a richer and thought-provoking experience.
The inferior and disappointing final moments switch gears and all hell breaks loose. Over an hour and a half of build-up, not awesome but still halfway decent to be fair, shouldn’t lead to such a thoughtless wreck. The men fight, things are smashed, furniture is overthrown and the mob goes crazy like brain-dead zombies. When Jeff and Lizzy break free from their pharma-cage and escape in a speedboat, it’s like watching some low-budget knock-off where 007 and Bond girl emerge from the villain’s lair into daylight. Meanwhile, the bad guy slips into his seaplane and promptly gets a taste of his own medicine, ending up in a cheap CGI fireball. Back at Spiderhead, all that’s missing is a series of rumbles and a massive explosion. I imagine the audience will supply that.
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