Immersive Sci-Fi with a painfully messy third act

In Netflix’s “Spiderhead,” Joseph Kosinski should have stuck with the source material.


By Aurora Amidon Published on June 17, 2022

If you want to walk on a shaky ethical tightrope for about an hour and fifty minutes, spider head is the movie for you. Directed by Top gun: Maverick’s Joseph Kosinskic and based on George Saunders’ 2010 New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, the movie is set in a futuristic prison called Spiderhead that offers its inmates an unprecedented amount of freedom. But at what price?

Created by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), Spiderhead exists for one purpose only: to test innovative experimental drugs on inmates. The drugs in question produce a wide variety of emotional states in their subjects: laughter, honesty, love – you name it.

Of course, experimental drug testing will come with significant warnings. In this case, Steve isn’t solely concerned with arousing “good” emotions; he also wants to take out the bad ones. And he does that with Darkenfloxx: a drug that makes you sick, angry and suicidal at the same time.

Understandably disturbed by Steve’s blasé use of the potentially deadly drug, inmate Jeff (miles Counter) begins to dig into the powers behind Spiderhead. Sure enough, he realizes that not everything is as peachy as the higher folks want you to think it is.

What follows is a high concept, high stakes action movie that traverses a tense, compelling thread. For about the first half, Kosinski skillfully manages to bring out the suspense of the story for as long as possible by hinting at some evil master plan at perfectly timed intervals. He also increases personal survivability by building an engaging and believable relationship between Jeff and fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee smollett), whose chemistry is palpable.

But alas, despite the carefully constructed beginning and middle, spider head falls apart in the third act, which, without giving too much away, has an ill-fitting and ill-explained twist ending. This is especially frustrating because Saunders’ short story is straight forward, laying all his cards on the table within the first few pages, and having the confidence to believe that his cockiness and stories will be enough for his audience.

All this means that Kosinski didn’t have to add too much to the source material to make a compelling film. Indeed, not only spider head have a fascinating premise, but it also has complex characters that are effortlessly fun to watch and do a lot of self-work. Jeff is a refreshingly unconventional protagonist, played by Teller as tense, reserved, understated and introspective (although his passivity is almost boring to watch at times). Steve isn’t your average villain either: Hemsworth plays him, at a career high point, with a nagging edge of hard-to-watch, cunning tech-bro despair. Above all, Steve must be liked.

But to his detriment, Kosinski refuses to let his film ride on great performances and even greater source material. Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, typically known for collaborating on clear, concise scripts such as Deadpool and Zombielandthrow in way too much information Spiderheads scenario, such as different drug names and trivial backstories about characters. Not only that, but they don’t do a good job explaining many of their random discussions.

But it’s not just the script trapping that’s a problem in spider head† While the film doesn’t stray too far from its source material to the third act on a narrative level, the production design and camera work throughout hint at its bombastic, nonsensical, and overwrought ending. For example, the Spiderhead facility inexplicably looks like something designed by a swanky contemporary architect for eight billion dollars. And almost missing a few helicopter landing sites. While this is clearly an attempt to evoke a sense of dystopian futurism, the astonishing extravagance doesn’t make much sense in the context of the plot. Ultimately, it only detracts from the story’s central ethical considerations and feels more like a high-budget action film than a thought-provoking meditation on life, death, and human rights.

The same goes for the film’s cinematography, which is an odd juxtaposition between simple, understated interior shots that highlight the power struggle between Jeff and Steve, and sweeping shots of jets whizzing over the glittering shoreline. Like the production design, the grandeur of the camera work confuses the philosophical nature of the plot and sets the tone spider head feels more like an action movie than anything else.

Similar tonal idiosyncrasies emerge during flashback scenes, where we learn why Jeff is in prison. Years earlier, he was drunk behind the wheel and had a crash that killed his best friend. It should be an emotional scene that explains Jeff’s guilt. As well as feeling that he deserves his treatment in Spiderhead. It’s all undermined by frenetic editing and a bizarre vintage lens filter. What Kosinski was trying to achieve with these stylistic choices, only he knows. But the choices are far too disruptive to evoke additional empathy for Jeff.

When it came down to it, adapting a George Saunders story would always be a tricky balancing act because of the inwardness and weighty philosophy inherent in his prose. Unfortunately, Kosinski’s attempts to make Saunders’ work more exciting causes the script to become overcrowded and the tone confused. Perhaps it’s possible to create an adaptation of “Escape from Spiderhead” that is both captivating and thought-provoking. But this isn’t it.

Related Topics: Netflix

Aurora Amidon spends her days directing the Great Expectations section trying to convince people that Hostel II is one of the greatest movies of all time. Read her most embarrassing tweets here: @aurora_amidon