“Spiderhead,” a pill of a thriller
“Spiderhead,” now streaming on Netflix for the undemanding, brings up the challenge of stretching a short story into conventional feature film length without the whole thing going sideways.
It’s not the actors’ fault. A movie’s biggest problems rarely are.
Anything and everything can go awry with a movie long before Chris Hemsworth or Miles Teller or Jurnee Smollett or anyone else arrives on the set.
On a remote island, sometime in the near future, prison inmates confined to a concrete, key-shaped structure jutting out over the ocean are being subjected to experimental, mood-altering drug trials. Hemsworth, all slap-happy, suspicious bonhomie, plays the genius-blowhard in charge. Teller plays one of the inmates, haunted by a fatal mistake behind the wheel years earlier; Smollett portrays his lover and fellow inmate, likewise trying to shut out her own personal tragedy.
In the control room, aka Spiderhead, aided by a morally queasy assistant (Mark Paguio), Hemsworth’s character takes smug delight in administering, via an app on his phone, strategic doses of un-inhibitors to his subjects. The vials of brightly colored liquid are attached surgically to the lower back, allowing the drugs to flow straight into the inmates’ bloodstreams. These drugs carry names like “Verbaluce” (for verbal expression). The lust drug leads to instantaneous copulation. Some of this is played for grim laughs.
The most sinister of the trials involves doses of Darkenfloxx, which causes thoughts and feelings so dire, the results can be fatal. “Spiderhead” takes its time revealing what’s up with these experiments, and whether there’s a way out of this pharmacological hell.
The way out was a tad more downbeat in George Saunders’ swift, crafty 2010 New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” adapted for this Australian-made Netflix project by screenwriters and “Deadpool” alums Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. “Spiderhead” the movie is part head trip and, later, part action-thriller, and the second part doesn’t fit too well with the first. The facetious use of obvious pop hits (”She Blinded Me With Science,” et al.) belongs to “Deadpool” wise-assery, not this premise. It’s fair game for a movie to go its own way, but director Joseph Kosinski toggles between brutal, abrupt violence — there’s a flashback to a body flying through a windshield we really don’t need to see twice — and a redemptive happy ending a long, long way from the short story’s.
Kosinski fared far better with the summer’s big hit, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which whatever you think of it at least operates smoothly, with a sense of direction. The script for “Spiderhead” makes a rookie mistake: It lets the audience get too far out ahead of the Teller character’s moral and narrative awakening. Hemsworth has some icy, rascally fun with his scenes; when Teller and Smollett get some time together, on their own, the story flickers to something like life. But even at 100 minutes minus end credits, the film’s stretch marks are undeniable.
“Spiderhead” — 2 stars
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MPAA rating: R (for language, violent content and sexual content)
Running time: 1:47
How to watch: Streaming June 17 on Netflix.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
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