For having such a streamlined, straightforward premise, it’s a noteworthy feat that director Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead acts as a Trojan Horse for larger-scale contemporary issues dealing with free will, ethics, and gaslighting in the pharmaceutical industry. The feature, adapted from George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” illustrates the dangers of unchecked power by men playing god, centering on a shady Dr. Feelgood whose ulterior motives turn willing test subjects into unsuspecting lab rats. With nimble performances, slick polish, dark-pitched wit, razor sharp sentiments, and a Yacht Rock-infused soundtrack, the film proves a seductive high.
At the remote Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Facility, a group of prisoners volunteer for a drug-testing program in exchange for a commuted sentence. They’ve each been outfitted with a MobiPak, a delivery device installed on their backs that contains mood-altering chemicals controlling everything from their sex drives to their cognitive and language skills. And every day, they’re tasked to perform in psychological experiments that run the gamut from mundane (describing a person or place) to challenging (choosing who should be dosed with a dangerous drug).
In charge of the makeshift prison is Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who believes in treating his prisoners as guests and work colleagues, imparting a false sense of security and then manipulating them into doing what he needs. He and dutiful, naïve associate Mark (Mark Paguio) carefully monitor everyone both in and out of their therapy-like sessions. The modernist luxury accommodations, with smooth rock classics pumping through the speakers to keep participants docile, have Jeff (Miles Teller), Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), Heather (Tess Haubrich), Ray (Stephen Tongun), Rogan (Nathan Jones), and Sarah (Angie Milliken) co-existing in a relatively undisturbed utopia. That is, until this seemingly altruistic case study goes horribly awry, leading Jeff and Lizzy to suspect that Abnesti is more foe than friend.
Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick build upon the short story’s blueprint in interesting, astute ways, altering the perspective from singular to shared, casting both Jeff and Steve as protagonists. They also meaningfully expand on delicate tethers, like its underlying themes of resonance and resilience. The pair’s intertwining arcs continually evolve throughout the film as the scales predictably dip in different directions, leading to an exchange of power. Layered character construction gives the story momentum, pushing to a lean, mean, albeit slightly convenient conclusion. The filmmakers infuse ordinary circumstances with a generous dose of comedic farce, not only demonstrated by the sophomoric running gag involving a fecal graffiti artist, but also in the sessions that put Steve’s love potion to the test.
However, not all of the changes made from the source material are handled as successfully. Beyond Lizzy and the secret struggles she copes with, women largely function either as a plot device or a punchline. A lack of definitiveness on the filmmakers’ part undercuts whether that choice is meant to be construed as subversive commentary that even this new-wave caste system, much like the dysfunctional society outside the reformatory’s walls, collapses into sexism. Plus, a stale homophobic joke creeps into the proceedings and stalls things at the behest of the ill-conceived bit.
That said, Kosinski and his collaborators amplify the characters, their conflicts and conundrums with cinematic language. There’s strong visual dexterity in its use of montage, where Claudio Miranda’s cinematography and Stephen Mirrione’s sharp edits come into lockstep, ramping up tension and electricity, keying the audience into the stakes and psyches. Jeremy Hindle’s Brutalist-meets-Scandinavian-cabin production design and Amelia Gebler’s connective costume design clue us into the perspectives and personalities at play. Joseph Trapanese’s compositions, which oscillate from delightfully humorous to oppressively foreboding, complement the narrative’s tonal swings. Soundtrack selections like “The Logical Song,” “Feels So Good,” “What A Fool Believes,” and “Crazy Love” run concurrent to the escalating drama, exhibiting both sonic and narrative purpose.
Teller, in his third outing with Kosinski, has an ease to his performance as an everyday man seeking redemption who is caught in extraordinary conditions. He infuses his character with nuance, strength, and vulnerability that make us root for him. Smollett brings pathos and heart to the forefront, particularly in the third act. Yet it’s Hemsworth’s smooth-talking, show-boating salesman with a sociopathic side who’s the main attraction. Steve is not a traditional villain archetype, and coupled with his stylized approachable wardrobe, he makes for a compelling character in the actor’s capable hands.
While we’re ahead of smaller details that define a few pivotal catalysts—and can likely predict where the story will lead—the journey taken is an engaging adventure guided by intuitive creators. It’s only a temporary intoxication, but this two-hour dopamine drip sustains its ephemeral immersion the whole time we’re hooked up to it.