It is very rare that I will sit down with the latest Netflix movie on its opening weekend. That is not an indictment of the platform, just a reflection of my viewing habits. However, I decided to make an exception. Spiderhead has an interesting premise, great visual style, and its strong cast goes a long way toward watchability but the concept would have been better served as a 6-8 episode mini-series.
Inmates at a clandestine island prison volunteer as test subjects for experimental drug trials in exchange for shortened sentences. However, the nature of that arrangement comes into question when one inmate questions the validity of the testing.
Joseph Kosinski is flying high off the stratospheric success of Top Gun: Maverick. So, seeing him team up with Zombieland and Deadpool writers Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick to adapt this idea from George Saunders’ short story was promising. The story itself has good bones, and the director’s visual style is on display along with the writers’ humor, but the pacing was far too quick. It didn’t leave enough room for the idea to breathe. Things move at such a breakneck pace, it doesn’t allow for the emotional cues to land with real impact. That works well enough when the screenplay has its sights set on humor but not so well when the fulcrum point requires true, earned emotions.
There is only a handful of characters that really matter to the story and they hit their cues to move the plot along, but there’s a lot that didn’t feel genuine. Start with the idea that all these people are being chemically manipulated and follow that up by introducing the characters at a point where the audience is asked to just accept certain bonds that haven’t been established on screen. It makes the one relationship that is supposed to be the most impactful feel a little empty. The rest of the cast is filled with cartoonish broad-stroke characters which, again, work well when angling for a laugh but not so well when attempting to cultivate genuine emotion. I would have liked to see this play out over a longer runtime.
We are still treated to entertaining performances in the lead roles from Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. Hemsworth makes for a very charismatic villain, but I had some difficulty distinguishing whether or not he was playing Abnesti as a character who genuinely believed in what he was doing or as a smarmy, glad-handing phony who knows that he is completely full of shit. There are moments where both or either seem to be true, but we didn’t get deep enough with him to know one way or the other. Teller is probably the deepest character and we see his backstory, or at least the memory of it, unfold repeatedly in flashbacks. It helps give his character, Jeff, some context but the surprise element of it was a waste of time. It was trying too hard. Teller is a very talented young actor and is not a detriment to this film, but I saw more genuine feeling in his portrayal of Rooster in Top Gun.
Jurnee Smollet internalizes her character’s guilt and suffering very well until it’s time for the bubble to burst and she owns that moment when it does. It’s the most impactful moment of the three main characters, but the character was pushed aside earlier in the film to make way for some of the more gimmicky fun stuff that the idea affords.
Mark Paguio did a wonderful job as Abnesti’s assistant/number two and was one of the few characters where feelings were transparent at all times. You can see the shift in his demeanor throughout the course of the film and he has better chemistry with the Teller and Hemsworth than they do with one another. While firmly in the supporting cast, Paguio does a lot more for this film than all of the other supporting roles combined.
I am a big fan of minimalist future design and Jeremy Hindle hit the nail on the head with the production design. The exterior of the facility was rendered in post-production, but it’s still a cool design. However, I really enjoyed the look of the Gold Coast Convention Centre in Queensland, Australia that was used for the interior shots. Pair that with a great soundtrack put together by Yvette Metoyer and it makes for a good presentation.
It’s not Netflix’s best film but it has style and I do like that it was a more creative offering than some of the generic action fodder they have been pumping out. If they are willing to potentially adapt it into a series, they could have something quite good on their hands.
Recommendation: It’s worth checking out for its strongest moments and some enjoyable performances from the principal cast.
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