Spiderhead has some potential but needed another draft to fully take off the ground.
Published on July 7, 2022
Rating 2.5 /5
Spiderhead starts with a good idea fit for a Twilight Zone episode and then merely spins its wheels like a soap opera hoping to find a point the longer it goes. A special prison island has been developed where those tried and convicted of crimes can work off their sentence doing practically nothing. They get to stay in an enclosure where they can walk around freely, get a phone call every week, enjoy a decent meal, and live in a fairly luxurious setting. The only catch is that they’ve got to test some new experiment that regulates their emotions.
Jeff (Miles Teller) is one of those test subjects. Like all the inmates, he has a special device on his back that gets implanted with drugs that can be regulated via a smartphone app. At the helm of this app is Steve Abnesti (Chris Pine), an eerily sympathetic warden with his quietly accepting assistant Mark (Mark Paguio). Steve conducts experiments on the inmates but tries to create the illusion of choice. He only engages the drugs he wants to be activated when attaining their consent. Sometimes it’s an experiment where Steve tests to see how much of Jeff’s vision can be distorted to see a beautiful meadow when in reality he’s staring at a power plant. Sometimes it’s an experiment with another inmate, as when one of the chemicals increases his sexual desires. When not on the clock, Jeff becomes close with Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), another inmate who is just as tight-lipped about her past as Jeff.
Steve’s latest drug for his patients is Darkenfloxx, this one bringing about a crippling sense of pain and fear. This drug is still experimental and when used on one of the patients results in a grizzly death. Frightened at what is going on in this facility, Jeff decides to probe further into what Steve’s true role is in this prison. Unsurprisingly, there’s an aspect of corporate greed and corruption at the heart of these experiments. Even the drugs themselves carry a sobering twist for the true story of how they’re named, feeling less like science and more like quick choices made at a brainstorming session.
There are a lot of unique areas that could be explored with this concept. There could be a questioning of our own emotions and how parts of our personality are regulated by powerful organizations. There’s a dark contemplation on the past and trying to reason a way into living another day when we slowly learn about the murders both Jeff and Lizzy were convicted for. There’s even an angle about how trying so hard to regulate the emotions of others can often lead to one manipulating themselves all in the name of profit. And yet the film only scratches the surface of all this.
The most disappointing aspect is how the film mostly settles by its third act to drop the mystery and just embrace an action aspect. Jeff and Lizzy soon find themselves fighting their way out of the facility when Steve’s scheme is discovered and his drugs are used to turn the inmates into assassins. Except these scenes have a very off-tone for trying to find some funny by placing an absurd soundtrack and quirks about how certain characters eat too much or can’t poop correctly. Scenes like this take one out of the film and remove a sense of deeper exploration in favor of a showy sequence where a plane crashes into a mountain.
Spiderhead has some potential but needed another draft to fully take off the ground. For being based on the short story Escape from Spiderhead by George Saunders, one might hope there’d be more to explore with how much the world has changed and leaned further toward a society where pharmaceutical companies control the health of all in a capitalist hellscape. Here’s a film that had a chance to make great commentary on this lingering dystopian part of our lives and can only muster a prison escape picture from it, where the best you can hope for is that the corrupt drug corporations will be done in by their own devices.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.