Spiderhead begins and ends with scenes of laughter — the first creepy and surreal, the last forlorn and ambiguous. In between lies a tonal high-wire act of a movie, by design. In Joseph Kosinski’s film of George Saunders’s short story “Escape From Spiderhead” (adapted by Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese, probably known best for their screenplay for Deadpool), a group of inmates in a futuristic prison willingly undergo experiments on their emotions. Small packs attached to their spines administer compounds that can make them giggle at the thought of genocide, find untold beauty in a toxic waste dump, or cower in fear at the sight of a stapler.
Overseeing it all is the chummy Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), an eager-to-please blazer-and-T-shirt tech bro who prides himself on having created a humane penitentiary nestled in a remote, paradiselike island surrounded by green hills and stretches of absurdly blue sea. It all feels quite congenial and collegial. Abnesti’s door is always open, inmates are served hors d’oeuvres, and everybody seems happy and calm. There’s even a communal kitchen, where warden Steve himself keeps his ice cream. (“Always practice the golden rules: No abuse — physical, verbal, or otherwise — and always label your food in the fridge.”)
As played by Hemsworth, Abnesti is both a slack, casual prophet and a deeply broken individual, an abandoned child determined to make the world a better place. He’s also quite funny. Among our current spate of Marvel stars, Hemsworth has some of the best comic timing, as he’s demonstrated in cameos and supporting turns in films such as Vacation and Ghostbusters (so much so that his Thor has gone from being one of the most stolid of superheroes to one of the more irreverent). His performance in Spiderhead might well be the best thing he’s done, giving a complicated lead role the unpredictable energy he’s brought in the past to his comedic turns. Every one of Abnesti’s humorous asides — and there are plenty of them — furthers our vision of his sociopathy. Part of the pleasure of watching Spiderhead is simply waiting to see what Hemsworth will do next.
The film follows one particular inmate, Jeff (Miles Teller, looking even buffer than usual), one of Abnesti’s star pupils, who has evidently been participating in these experiments for so long it’s all become routine to him. Glimpses into Jeff’s past reveal a horrific drunk-driving accident, which clues us in to the nature of the people being experimented on in Spiderhead. They haven’t just been condemned for their crimes; they have condemned themselves. They are consumed with guilt, having caused death and ruin through their exercise of free will. We suspect something similar might be going on with Jeff’s fellow inmate Lizzy (a marvelous and vibrant Jurnee Smollett). We don’t get flashbacks for her, but we do wonder what’s lurking beneath her cheery, playful façade.
As Abnesti puts it at one pivotal moment, justifying his experiments, “Only you can prevent another you.” That sentiment looms over Spiderhead, and it gives the whole film, for all its comic digressions, a reflective, rueful quality — one enhanced by a yacht-rock soundtrack filled with songs that sound like party classics from one angle and existential meditations from another. (The film opens with Supertramp’s “Logical Song,” and the whole movie could be contained in the lyric: “Won’t you please, please tell me what we’ve learned … Please tell me who I am.”) Of course, this melancholy mood is an element Spiderhead shares with Kosinski’s other films, including his recent megablockbuster Top Gun: Maverick. (The director shot Spiderhead in Australia during the pandemic while Maverick, which had been filmed in 2018 and 2019, sat on the shelf, waiting for theaters to safely open. As a result, he’s coming out with two very different movies in a very short period of time.)
Kosinski has always been a master of tone, but Spiderhead makes for an unusual challenge as its characters’ emotions are often the opposite of what one might anticipate; there’s a split between what they’re actually seeing and what they’re feeling. This world has lost its moorings, and yet it remains highly ordered. There’s something unusually pertinent about that idea. It’s a cautionary tale about the reality we all wish we could be living in. Here is a place, then, where everyone does as they’re told, and beneath its placid surfaces, its lush setting and clean spaces, lies a deep moral decay. This is a common theme in science fiction, but on film it’s rarely been presented as entertainingly and thoughtfully as it is in Spiderhead. It reminds one of the animating quote of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, a spiritual cousin to this movie: “Goodness is something to be chosen. When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”