Spiderhead’s setup suggests a third-act revelation, or at least stunning dramatic development, one that never comes. It’s a deficit that may lead many to feel underwhelmed by Joseph Kosinski’s follow up to Top Gun: Maverick, currently flying high in the box-office charts. I wouldn’t say that of it, exactly, but this is undoubtedly a case where the short story lent itself more directly to the anthology show format, lacking sufficient meat for feature expansion.
Abnesti: The time to worry about crossing lines was a lot of lines ago.
Based on George Saunders 2010 New Yorker (short) story Escape from Spiderhead, and adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick of Deadpool fame – and also 6 Underground, where you’d be willing to believe they considered the lack of a discernible plot a positive boon – Kosinski’s movie is your basic experiment-gone-awry affair, one replete with all the polished production values you expect of a Kosinski movie.
Indeed, the director’s first two big screen outings were striking for their evocative combination of soundtrack and visuals – if also criticised as offering little beyond the two – and here he is similarly demonstrative. Albeit, adopting a decidedly ironic pop sensibility this time, one that decidedly gets the better of the contributions from regular composer Joseph Trapanese. Since they are frequently the diegetic selections of Chris Hemsworth’s Steve Abnesti, supervisor of a test programme on volunteer inmates of the Spiderhead penitentiary, these are often obtuse, self-congratulating or showy numbers, such as She Blind Me with Science and More Than This.
Indeed, Kosinski’s high-res sheen, juxtaposed with yesteryear’s chart hits, lends itself to the oeuvre of Damon Lindelof (whose Lost had its share of experiments and pop tunes). It isn’t altogether successful; the way Kosinski, not I feel a natural comedian, does it, it’s studied rather than genuinely witty/clever, not unlike the way Kubrick couldn’t resist sledgehammering the crass komedy in A Clockwork Orange, which you might argue was his intent, but you might then argue whether the effect was meritorious. Nevertheless, there’s no denying Kosinski’s skill with presentation.
Variety’s Peter Debruge was of the view Spiderhead gets everything wrong, perhaps because he’s stuck firmly in a compare-and-contrast with the short story (“Situations like these… are very hard to make funny when performed by real people” – who exactly thought they were supposed to be, Peter? There’s clearly a queasy intent with the juxtapositions, the musical ones especially). He can also be found making bizarre remarks about “badly staged fistfights and low-budget explosions”; the last thing Spiderhead looks is low budget. It’s consummately crafted. Jordan Ruimy has it pegged as costing $100m, although who knows what Netflix movies really cost, since they’re accounting is shockingly suspect; never forget The Irishman supposedly cost $250m. (For reference, never read a Variety review unless you’ve seen the movie first, as they eagerly dump the plot on you without warning you first of spoilers.)
Abnesti: You know this is science, Jeff. And in science, we have to explore the unknown.
I disagree with Debruge’s overall take, then, to the extent that – aside from letting a movie be its own thing, beyond the source material – Spiderhead is at least partially successful in establishing tone, pace and dramatic thrust. With regard to Hemsworth, he’s playing Abnesti as appreciably prickish and oblivious to his subjects’ needs, in a sociopathic, omniscient manner (so a caricature of misspent science, which is clearly the intent). The problem is that you’re constantly aware of Hemsworth using the ironic delivery tricks he’s increasingly known for – Waititi and his funny take on Thor – which quickly go towards making the performance a little tiresome, rather than electrifying. Guy Pearce might have been a better Australian to navigate the queasy/funny/alpha-nerdy/immoral Abnesti roadmap.
Jeff: Why do we keep saying yes? Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge.
Lizzy: All the times you said yes, why did you?
Jeff: I guess I felt like I deserved it.
Debruge identifies the Milgram experiments as a source of inspiration – measuring obedience to authority to the end of inflicting pain on others – but that’s only one part of Spiderhead’s remit. Much of it revolves around the motives of the experimenter rather than the “teacher” and “learner”. We eventually learn the various drugs being administered – inducing heightened chemical responses according to desired condition, administered via implants at the base of the spine, and going under a variety of names such as Luvactin (sexual response) Verbaluce (verbal expression) and Darkenfloxx (unspecified nightmarish experiences) as well as one that encourages consumptive behaviour (regurgitation then continued ingestion being the order of the test) – are mere adornments to the testing of B-6, Obediex.
Abnesti: The goal wasn’t obedience. It was absolute obedience without exceptions.
Where Kosinski, Reese and Wenick come unstuck with the B-6 reveal is that there’s insufficient evidence it’s this alone that is driving the subjects to “Acknowledge” every time. Indeed, we very much see a standard situation of disinclination towards the tests (except maybe BeBe Bettencourt’s Emma with regard to sex), with the element pushing compliance being the fear of returning to a standard-issue state facility. I found myself asking, without the impetus of B-6, how different would the order of acknowledgement be?
If that’s dissatisfying, so is the so-so guilt of our lead characters. Jeff’s crime is getting loaded and crashing his car, killing his friend and girlfriend, while Lizzy’s is neglect (she forgot her baby in her car, who died). They’re obviously calibrated as sins the viewer will forgive; in Lizzy’s case, given the build-up, it’s a distinctly anticlimactic crime. It’s made clear to us they aren’t your usual locked-up psychos and certainly don’t really deserve to remain that way (but again, given the distinction from some of the loons we meet, why do we think those inmates would have any qualms about saying yes every time, regardless of Obediex, Darkenfloxx excepted)?
Jeff: Sometimes, it’s hard to remember who I was before I came here.
The Spiderhead Chronicles resolves itself with Jeff (Miles Teller) calling the police and escaping the island with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) as Abnesti crashes his plane into a mountain: all rather underwhelming. As ever with current fare, I was given pause to consider possible allusions to the prevailing paradigm. In this interpretation, Abnesti represents the Elite or controllers, while the penitentiary/island is the Earth realm. We’re the inmates, programmed to acknowledge compliantly each time some new horror is thrown our way and accept rather than reject it. We have no capacity to do otherwise, because we don’t even know we are being fed the compliance drug (being the conditions of the lie we are raised under). We will thus, by our “complicity” agree to rules to the detriment of our fellow inmates (on whatever level).
The desire to go back (Jeff) is to return to the state before this condition of rule arrived. The problem being, the details of that condition become ever sketchier (whether one wants to characterise that as generational obscurity post-reset incident, or the amnesia of reincarnation). Naturally, the aim of the Elite is to initiate total control of the mind, to produce “A world filled with people who do exactly as they’re told. Behave not as they want but as they damn well should”, and as per the volunteers’ implants, this may be achieved via the route of transhumanism.
Jeff: I wish there was a self-forgiveness drug. You take it and everything starts over… But there’s no drug like that. So we’re gonna have to do it for ourselves.
Kosinski may well have been hoping to prove he wasn’t just a technical maestro throwing pretty pictures onto the screen. I don’t know he’s exactly achieved that, since Maverick is going great (top) guns, while this, if initial IMDB and critical response is any indication, is going down like a bag of cold sick. But Spiderhead isn’t a bad movie; it just leaves you questioning whether it should have been a movie.
First published by Now in Full Color on 18/06/22.