Spiderhead Review: An Odd Blend Of Philosophical Sci-Fi, Psychological Thriller, And Dystopian Satire

Netflix has been reserved in promoting their sci-fi thriller "Spiderhead," and after watching the movie, I understand why. Starring Chris Hemsworth in a decidedly not heroic role, the movie is an odd blend of philosophical science-fiction, psychological thriller, and dystopian satire. This is a heady mix that feels designed by director Joseph Kosinski to pursue cult classic status, but whether or not the film will actually succeed in this aim remains to be seen. 

"Spiderhead" is the story of an experimental facility (deemed Spiderhead) where incarcerated felons are used to test experimental pharmaceuticals. The drug trials are run by warden Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a scientist as brilliant as he is charismatic. Those at the facility enjoy the freedom to roam the halls of Spiderhead freely; however, this "freedom" is limited. The building is extremely isolated, and prisoners have very little — if any — contact with the outside world. Inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) finds himself at the center of an increasingly disturbing progression of experiments that eventually (and predictable) leads to tragedy.

Kosinski — who also directed the recent hit "Top Gun: Maverick" — designs a captivating world for "Spiderhead." Limiting the action to almost exclusively the facility itself, care went into making the space feel lived-in and realistic while also being claustrophobic and oppressive. There are glimpses of Abnesti's influence everywhere: his '80s playlist echoing through the halls, and splashes of bright yellow and orange on the walls, furniture, and decor; rather than add a friendly note to the surroundings, these serve as chilling reminders to those living in Spiderhead that they are in Abnesti's domain. Sure, these people enjoy privileges not afforded to those in the traditional prison system, but the cost is being completely vulnerable to the whims of a single, egomaniacal man.

Hemsworth plays an American psycho

In 2000, Mary Harron — a Canadian critic-turned-filmmaker — confused many people with her satirical thriller "American Psycho." Harron co-wrote the movie with Guinevere Turner, based on the 1991 novel "American Psycho" by Bret Easton Ellis. The story is set in the '80s, using yuppie culture as a lens through which to condemn consumerism. The two women infused the story with a dry, darkly comedic edge that not only honors the novel's anti-capitalist themes and transgressive plot, but also offers a poignant message at the end: as a handsome, affluent, white, cis male, serial killer Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) will never get the punishment he deserves.

"Spiderhead" feels like a spiritual successor to "American Psycho," for better or worse. Steve Abnesti is clearly modeled after Patrick Bateman: his hair, glasses, and classic good looks are reminiscent of Christian Bale's interpretation of the character; his preference for decidedly '80 hits is almost certainly a nod to "American Pyscho's" setting; and, there are hints throughout that — like Patrick Bateman — Abnesti is a sociopath, driven by greed and incapable of empathy. 

Rather than criticize consumerism though, "Spiderhead" is more generally an allegory for abusive relationships, with Abnesti taking the role of abuser and his test subjects, victims. Abnesti presents himself as an affable, kind man, but he expertly manipulates and lies to those around him (including assistant Verlaine, played by Mark Paguio); he knows how to feign sympathy and concern while leveraging the situation for personal benefit. Jeff and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) feel powerless in the situation, admitting at one point that more than anything, Abnesti's treatment leaves them feeling ashamed. It's an interesting thesis for a film, but the nature of this topic isn't exactly ripe for satire. 

An enjoyable mixed bag

The performances in "Spiderhead" propel the story forward. Chris Hemsworth — my favorite of the "Hollywood Chrises" — is in top form. Hemsworth steals every scene he's in, allowing Abnesti's dark impulses to simmer under his sexy surface. Smollett and Teller have excellent chemistry onscreen, giving the audience something to root for. Paguio's another standout: his looks of consternation and dismay set up Abnesti's dark turns. Even the most shocking twists are still organic to the story. Having said that, the tone and pacing are uneven; the story is smartly written, and it challenges audiences without being confusing, but the way events are presented and the approach to the content is inconsistent.

Unfortunately, "Spiderhead" lacks some of the bite of its inspiration "American Psycho." The target of satire here is less sharp, with Hemsworth's Steve Abnesti being the clear villain working against Jeff, the film's hero. Often, the film drifts into being a straightforward sci-fi thriller with Jeff and Abnesti working against each other's interests, and Kosinski struggles to balance the humor with earnest pathos. At first watch, it's not really clear what the movie is trying to do: Is it a comedy? A thriller? A message-driven sci-fi with satirical moments? Ultimately, I think the answer is all three. 

"Spiderhead" is a movie that defies conventional genre labels, and while Kosinski isn't always successful in balancing the various elements, I have to admit: this is one hell of a ride. The '80s pop soundtrack is super fun, and the production design consistently interesting. There are plenty of frills, chills and thrills in this tight 106-minute story. By no means a flawless execution, 'Spiderhead" is a compelling story that had me hooked from the opening shot to the closing credits. Fans of sci-fi, satire, and all things weird — this one is for you. 

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10