In a state-of-the-art penitentiary run by brilliant visionary Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), inmates wear a surgically attached device that administers dosages of mind-altering drugs in exchange for commuted sentences. There are no bars, no cells, or orange jumpsuits. In Spiderhead, incarcerated volunteers are free to be themselves. Until they’re not. At times, they’re a better version.
Need to lighten up? There’s a drug for that. At a loss for words? There’s a drug for that, too. But when two subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), form a connection, their path to redemption take a twistier turn, as Abnesti’s experiments start to push the limits of free will altogether.
Up to this point, Joseph Kosinski has been on fire, making a handful of incredible films and serving as a beacon of hope within the industry. Most recently, the Tron: Legacy director helmed Top Gun: Maverick, one of the best movies in years which also just so happened to make a ton of box office revenue. It’s inevitable that one day, Kosinski will become a household name, but unfortunately, his latest film Spiderhead doesn’t do him any favors.
It’s genuinely not difficult to understand what drew his attention to this story. The film is based on a short story called “Escape from Spiderhead,” which essentially has the exact same premise. Surely, Kosinski read this story and became immediately intrigued and perhaps even hoped that he would be able to do something with it someday. However, anybody that knows the source material will tell you that it’s quite a complex story. Not any random director could simply adapt it and make it good for the big screen.
Kosinski seemed like the perfect choice. Not only has he directed a handful of beloved films in the past, he’s also directed a science-fiction film previously. So much of this film seemed right up his alley, but unfortunately, he fumbles the ball here. Spiderhead is not an awful movie by any means, but it’s also definitely not a good movie. It’s a mind-bending tale and one that can be a little disturbing and similar to Black Mirror at times, but it can also be way too much to unpack.
Just when we think we understand what’s going on in one scene, screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick come in and make things even more complicated. Complex stories are ones that need to be embraced more by general audiences, but there’s a difference between being complex and downright confusing.
Spiderhead is confusing. It’s also just an extremely muddled and messy story that goes in several different directions and feels as if it has six different tones. Easily the best aspect of Spiderhead are the two lead performances from Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. Hemsworth is obviously recognizable worldwide for his performance as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). In that franchise, he is fun and charismatic, but oftentimes people forget that, with the right material, Hemsworth can be legitimately creepy and unsettling.
That’s exactly how he is in Spiderhead in the role of Steve Abnesti. Teller, on the other hand, portrays Jeff, a man who desperately wants to decode all the secrets of Spiderhead so he can outmaneuver the tests that await him. Both actors give staggering performances in a film that’s simply not worthy of their talents.
With Spiderhead, Joseph Kosinski has finally made a bad movie. It’s a muddled, tonally confused mess that goes off the rails of believability, despite featuring strong performances from Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller.
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