Review: Spiderhead Asks Interesting Questions But Fumbles The Follow-Through

Top Gun: Maverick is still plowing through the box office, adeptly directed by Joseph Kosinski and showcasing both Tom Cruise and Miles Teller in top form. We’re lucky, then, that Kosinski also has a sci-fi thriller coming our way, co-starring Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller in a thoughtful film with some interesting implications. It’s a worthy watch, but one with some inexplicably missed opportunities that hamper its potential.

In Spiderhead (dir: Joseph Kosinski), Miles Teller plays Jeff, a prisoner in a cutting-edge facility that’s at face value both high-tech and open, with prisoners receiving various chemical combinations as part of cutting-edge experiments (effectively they’re human pharmaceutical lab rats). The day-to-day experiments are run by Steve Abnessi (Chris Hemsworth), a face-value friendly experimenter with a dark edge. Also at the facility is Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a kind-hearted prisoner/subject with a dark past. Jeff begins to discover that not all is what it seems behind the experiments, and they’re all in greater danger than they knew.

Teller adds a lot of pathos and intelligence behind the portrayal of Jeff, a tormented patient/inmate (patienmate?) who nonetheless is an observant and intelligent individual. Jurnee Smollett’s oozes sweetness and charisma as Lizzy despite being slightly under-utilized, with some incredibly strong emotional moments. Hemsworth’s clearly having a blast as Steve, wearing a layer of tactical charm mixed with an intelligent frat bro energy. His complex chemistry with Teller drive the film, and both land their respective performances.

There’s an interesting set of ethical and intellectual conundrums at the film’s heart, and the complexity of said experimentation is very much exhibited in its effects (although it isn’t fully explored on an ethical level). At its best, Spiderhead showcases the terrifying implications of these sorts of experiments, even when hidden behind a utilitarian veneer.

It’s a film that was shot in late 2020 during the pandemic, with its low population (and contained interaction) set ups, clean cement walls, and isolated interiors. The locale certainly has that isolated-facility feel, but the film spends too long in a very small subset of locations that the world does feel smaller and more limited than it should. Even beyond varying locations, the camera angles were repetitive—a little creative camera work could have maintained that claustrophobic feel without it feeling repetitive for the viewer.

Not making use of the space is really a symptom of a larger problem, that of a broader lack of use of the assets they did have available in Spiderhead’s production. Jurnee Smollett, for example, could be onscreen far more than she is in practice. The exteriors used for the facility are gorgeous, yet we mainly see them towards the end, losing major opportunities to contextualize our setting and hold off those repetitive and needlessly claustrophobic feelings. There are also instances of possible plot elements that are teased and should have been used but weren’t, like when a massive, aggressive prisoner was teased repeatedly, directly teased as an obstacle to the protagonists, and then… nothing happen. It’s a tad baffling, to be frank.

The oddest element of Spiderhead is that there are some tonal choices that fail to make sense. At its core is a sci-fi film with solid thriller potential—a great cast with strong enough performances, betrayal, institutional threats, mystery. These elements of Spiderhead by and large land… and then there are the addition of weirdly whimsical moments, strange tonal shifts, or off-putting humor moments (fecal jokes, anyone?) that regularly sabotage the potential of those moments to land to the extent they should (and otherwise could). There’s no good explanation for it.

Spiderhead has a core that should be a tight, excellent thriller. It has an A+ cast who largely land what needs to happen, an intriguing idea behind it, some thoughtful (if under-explored) moral quandaries, and a setting that, if used properly, could work perfectly. The largest difficulty is that the film’s potential is hampered by some odd choices that blunt its impact, building towards a conclusion that feels rushed. It’s a fine enough sci-fi thriller, but it remains just that—fine.

Spiderhead premieres June 17th on Netflix
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