At first glance, it’s hard to mess up an unhinged Chris Hemsworth.
The lion’s share of his box office gross comes from playing Thor, but Hemsworth sparks the most on-screen when his characters are slightly off-kilter. (Taika Waititi realized this with Thor: Ragnarok, making it the most enjoyable Thor solo project to date.) Part of it has to do with audience expectations. Hemsworth looks like a muscle-bound thunder god, so seeing him play someone quite different is interesting, even exciting. But he also looks like he’s having so much fun playing weird. Who doesn’t love some good old scenery-chewing, especially when the chewer spends most of his time swinging hammers or shooting guns in non-descript locales?
Spiderhead‘s biggest selling point is the chance to see Hemsworth play a taller, snazzier-dressed Dr. Evil. Steve Abnesti is a scientist running Spiderhead prison, the first thing you’d imagine “Club Fed” to be. The prisoners, including Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), receive these ostensible perks by voluntarily participating in mood-altering chemical experiments. One drug alters sexual attraction, while another makes you terrified of something harmless. All they have to do is say “acknowledge” (with as little emotion as required) and a mobile pack of drugs installed on their lower backs flood their bloodstreams.
It doesn’t take a brain scientist to see something wrong with Dr. Abnesti and his prison. The question is, why is it wrong? What is Spiderhead trying to say, as a prison and a movie? I don’t think it knows itself. The film offers several intriguing and relevant ideas and does nothing with them. (The film is adapted from “Escape from Spiderhead,” a short story by George Saunders published in The New Yorker in 2010.) It barely glances at the prison-industrial complex before it tangles itself up in chemical compositions and wacky hijinks. It squanders a chance to meaningfully address sexual consent in prisons, which is irresponsible given it’s a key plot point.
However, the biggest missed opportunity is how little it says about how the “charismatic genius” has gathered and weaponized obscene amounts of power and trust in society. It directly connects to why many people are even watching Spiderhead in the first place: to see Hemsworth play the bad guy. If you’re going to bother, why not throw in a valuable point of view? Something more than “daddy issues”? It’s not like Hemsworth can’t play different shades of grey; he does it in this film. For whatever reason, the script doesn’t trust him, or perhaps itself, to dive into more compelling waters.
It’s a shame because Spiderhead yearns to be more. You can see it through director Joseph Kosinski’s beautiful lens. Spiderhead looks and sounds handsome and expensive. The set design is razor-sharp, conveying the modern, sterile hellhole the inmates unknowingly signed up for. There are several ’80s soundtrack needle drops to strike at your easiest pleasure centers. (Just in case Fresh and Kate Bush haven’t satisfied your cravings this year.) The bold camerawork draws you in, sweeping across grassy hilltops and keeping Hemsworth perfectly in the frame.
And yet, Spiderhead‘s sky-high budget doesn’t translate to the page. The tone is, at best, confused. Is it a dark comedy? Possibly, but there is more pain and heartbreak than biting satire. Drama might work if the script dialed down the comic moments a bit. The film bills itself as a “psychological thriller,” but it isn’t saying or doing anything intellectually challenging or exciting to deserve that label. So yes, Spiderhead looks gorgeous. But, what is the overhead drone shot of Miles Teller talking on a phone really good for? (Top Gun: Maverick, Kosinski’s other summer movie this year, fits the high-concept blockbuster bill much better.)
Spiderhead doesn’t just waste Netflix’s increasingly strapped bank accounts; it also wastes its cast. As I wrote earlier, it’s hard to mess up an unhinged Chris Hemsworth, but this film somehow manages. Everything he does is enjoyable, but I wondered several times if he might’ve been miscast. I don’t believe that he was. A tighter script would’ve clarified the character and allowed him more room to play up his strengths. Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett have fine romantic chemistry, but their characters are barely sketched, and it shows.
Ultimately, Spiderhead is an odd entry in Netflix’s library. Under Joseph Kosinski’s eye, it wants to reach the heights of other lavish, high-concept blockbusters. And yet, its foundations (read: the script) scream “weekend diversion.” Weekend diversions are fine, of course, and Spiderhead indeed sits closer to the top of Netflix’s sausage factory output. It wants to be more, though, and its ambitions often exceed its reach. Everyone is just left dangling in mid-air.
Unhinged Chris Hemsworth deserves better than that.
Spiderhead is currently streaming on Netflix.