Netflix’s Spiderhead could have been the new Black Mirror. But plot, characters let it down

Imagine walking into a carnival. The amusement rides on display have nothing new to offer. And neither do food vendors. All in all, the space lacks the sole purpose for which it was made—fun. But you still walk out of it somewhat satisfied, only because of the company you had. That’s precisely how you might end up feeling at the end of Spiderhead, now streaming on Netflix.

After the theatrical success of Top Gun: Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski turned gears to cater to the OTT platform, but the sci-fi thriller doesn’t quite stick the landing. The only commonality between the two films besides Kosinski—Miles Teller—along with Chris Hemsworth, is the saving grace of the dystopic sci-fi film.

The film is an adaptation of George Saunders’ short story Escape from Spiderhead, which was published in the New Yorker in 2010. The plot is set in Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center, which also happens to be a drug testing facility on a remote island. It is run by the seemingly suave Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), a ‘genius’ who believes his experimental drugs will change the world. The prisoners are serving reduced sentences in exchange for being tested upon. Jeff (Teller) is one of the inmates who is serving a sentence for manslaughter after a drunken car ride led to the death of two of his close ones. The film revolves around the power dynamics between Steve and Jeff which—on the face of it—is cordial. But cracks show up as the narrative progresses.

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Spiderhead’s world of control

Spiderhead belongs in the world of Black Mirror (2011) and Severance (2022) wherein the subjugated class is treated as a guinea pig—a concept that has been explored repeatedly in the science fiction/fantasy world. Much like Severance, the inmates in Spiderhead undergo experiments under the mirage of ‘choice’. Prisoners are often subjected to messed-up trials, for example, at one point, Jeff is forced to pick which of his fellow inmates will undergo a mind-altering drug that is expected to let the recipient experience immense pain and discomfort. Before any drug is induced, the inmates must explicitly say “acknowledge”, making them feel that they have a ‘say’ in the matter.

The penitentiary centre has an open-door policy, making the inmates feel empowered. They live in hi-tech dormitories with access to a fully-stocked pantry and arcade games. They are assigned chores, enabling a sense of routine and responsibility in them. All this, while their behaviour is controlled and manoeuvred by a small device implanted on the lower back of each resident. It consists of vials containing various experimental drugs, which are infused depending on what Steve wants them to do. At the click of a button, they may experience immense hunger, break into uncontrollable laughter, feel aroused or start blurting out their innermost fears. It is a fascinating world but with undercooked characters and a predictable plotline.

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Hemsworth and Teller shine

The performances by Hemsworth and Teller are the highlight of the 107-minute-long film. As a prisoner living with the guilt of leading the two people closest to him to death, Teller evokes empathy. Hemsworth is dealing with his own traumatic past. These background stories are presented as matter-of-fact instead of allowing the audience to develop any substantial feelings towards either of the two characters.

At one point, Steve says, “This is science, Jeff. And in science, we have to explore the unknown. The unknown can lead to the unforeseen…”. I wonder what the director and writers could have created had they foreseen the frailties of a rushed climax. Spiderhead attempts to weave a world wherein a puppeteer choreographs the ‘free will’ of the people living in it. But beyond the premise, the film does not have much to offer—rather, in a hurry to say everything, it says nothing at all.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

Source: The Print