There’s Something Sneaky About Netflix’s Playfulness spider head. The sci-fi thriller, directed by a dapper Chris Hemsworth, is set in a remote prison research facility, where inmates are granted surprising freedom in exchange for being subjected to experimental pharmaceutical treatments that do everything from make them feel terrified to create an unsatisfactory hunger. It’s a dark thing. And yet, much of the movie has a lighthearted tone to help mask its snarky nature; Hemsworth dances to 80s pop and the inmates spend their free time playing arcade games and creating snacks with prosciutto and nectarines.
The whiplash between these moments and the dark premise is delightful, though ultimately, spider head does not quite stick the landing. It ends with a fizzle – but it’s still great fun watching Hemsworth try dancing along the way.
spider head is based on George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, first published in the New Yorker in 2010, and directed by Joseph Kosinski (Oversight, Top Gun: Maverick), with the dead Pool duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick writing the screenplay. Hemsworth stars as Steve Abnesti, an eccentric tech and science visionary who runs the Spiderhead Prison and Research Facility. The prison itself is located on what appears to be an isolated island; the building is an intimidating brutalist structure on the outside and looks like a 1975 vision of the future on the inside.
Spiderhead has an open door policy and apparently no guards are stationed. Inmates are all given jobs, such as managing the snack outlet or serving as janitors. What really makes the place unique, however, is the small device implanted in each resident’s back. Each is filled with a series of colorful vials containing different chemicals, and with a smartphone app, Abnesti can manipulate these chemicals to deliver a specific drug and alter the inmates’ condition. The first example you see is a man who just can’t stop laughing; Abnesti begins by telling terrible jokes to his father before finally moving on to reciting facts about the genocide. But the laughter continues uninterrupted throughout the session.
There are drugs that make inmates uncontrollably excited or hungry and another that turns any sight into the most beautiful sight the person has ever laid eyes on. A drug turns a simple object – like, say, a stapler – into your absolute worst fear. While the prisoners feel the effects, Abnesti watches from behind a large glass wall, frequently giving instructions over a loudspeaker. If the inmates aren’t particularly talkative, he uses the app to give them a dose of “Verbaluce” to get them to describe their feelings.
The idea of treating a subjugated class as a kind of guinea pig is not a new concept in fiction, but spider head stands out for its sheer audacity and discordant tonal kick. The experiences are obviously disturbing, but it’s all hidden under a veneer of privilege and the illusion of choice. The inmates accept it, even when it’s really screwed up – at one point, a prisoner named Jeff (Miles Teller) is forced to choose which of his fellow inmates should be given the worst mind-altering drug – because, well, it is better than being in an ordinary prison. They must also explicitly state that they “acknowledge” the procedure before a dose can be administered, which gives the impression that they really have a say in the matter.
Holding it all together is Hemsworth, who you’ll definitely want to punch in the face watching this. It exudes the privilege and optimism of its technological sibling, masking its nightmarish experiences under the guise of saving the world (of which, however, we are never told). All the while, he berates his poor assistant and constantly makes the inmates feel like they should express their gratitude for all he has done for them. At one point, he jokes about the benefits he got from being so handsome.
spider head is a steady build-up of fear, going from laughter drugs to truly terrible “accidents.” He also does a great job of hiding his true intentions – when Jeff finally puts the pieces together and understands what the experiments are for, it’s an incredibly satisfying twist. Unfortunately, from there, the film doesn’t really know what to do with itself. There are a few action sequences and chases at the end, but they go almost nowhere. spider head raises a lot of fascinating (and depressingly relevant) questions but has little interest in answering them.
But until this last act, spider head works surprisingly well, like an episode of black mirror who has a real sense of humor. It’s a story that shows just how far you can go based on charm and the illusion of good intentions – and when you’re Chris Hemsworth, that’s quite a stretch indeed.
spider head premieres on Netflix on June 17.