The first teaser for Spiderhead had me intrigued. I knew little about the story other than it starred an impressive cast with Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, and Jurnee Smollett and was based on a George Saunders short story. In preparation for the film, I obviously went to hunt down Saunders’ New Yorker story. Brief and containing far more sex in it than I expected, “Escape from Spiderhead” was a cerebral and grim story about free will and control. Looking at the Netflix movie, I expected a similar ending except that perhaps the road to it might meander a bit, and we might get Chris Hemsworth dancing to some pop music like all good psychopaths in movies. Well, I got the latter, but not the former, and I guess that’s a loss.
The movie follows Jeff (Teller) who has been brought to Spiderhead, a prison where prisoners experimented on with pharmaceuticals in return for reducing their prison sentence. There, he meets Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), the project overseer and not-so-secret villain of the movie. Abnesti is formulating and testing drugs with catchy names like Verbaluce, meant to make a person more eloquent and descriptive, and Darkenfloxx, a torture drug that essentially makes you feel awful and damn near suicidal. His new drug is a love drug, and he tests it on Jeff and another inmate named Heather (Tess Haubrich). The two have sex. Abnesti brings in another woman for Jeff to have sex with the next day.
Then, the actual test begins. He brings Jeff in again and sits the two women in a testing room together. Jeff must choose to administer Darkenfloxx to one of them, but after saying that he has no strong feelings for either woman, the experiment is over. But, Abnesti tells Jeff, that the higher-ups are not impressed with the experiment and Jeff must administer Darkenfloxx to Heather. The experiment fails horribly and Heather ends up dead. At the same time, Jeff has developed a friendship and burgeoning relationship with one of the other inmates, Lizzy (Smollett).
To avoid giving away the entire movie, suffice it to say that Abnesti then brings Lizzy into his experiment, and everything sort of goes south after that. The problem with adapting such an economically written short story is the necessity to fill the empty space with backstory and subplots flood the story and dilute the message. These don’t necessarily serve the story or the themes from the original short story. We don’t need to really know why Jeff or Lizzy are in prison, we don’t need to know the semantics behind the experiment, and we don’t need to know what happens to Abnesti in the end. The soul of the story lies in the decision of free will and control.
While the movie skirts around that issue, it leans too heavily into science fiction and leans too far away from the philosophical. Hemsworth is an exciting and manic villain in the form of Steve Abnesti, and he fits the mold of a psychotic bro with no regard for anything but his own ambitions. But, despite a magnetic performance, his Abnesti devolves too deeply into his mustache-twirling. Teller’s Jeff is more or less a blank slate of a character, even though he is scarred by his crimes, he’s impossible not to like and sympathize with. His chemistry with Smollett is believable enough to convince you that these two really are in love with each other.
But in attempting to fill 107 minutes of a ~7,000-word story, there’s too much left to the hands of screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Credit does go to Joseph Kosinski for not leaning too much into the lasciviousness that this story naturally inclines toward. And the production design of the sleek Spiderhead facility is the stuff of dystopic sci-fi dreams. Still, the performances and the gleam of the movie’s aesthetics aren’t enough. At the end of the day, “Escape from Spiderhead” left me a bit melancholic and pensive with Saunders providing an uncomfortable ending that leaves you off-kilter. It’s a very sci-fi ending that uses its fictional elements to highlight a human dilemma. Meanwhile, Spiderhead‘s reliance on explosions, violence, and unnecessarily convoluted plots muddled the waters of the story and misses the point of the story altogether. The lesson at the end of the day? Chris Hemsworth should play more villains, but let’s leave literary adaptations for projects that honor the original story.