Review: Chris Hemsworth Is Sinister and Polished in Spiderhead, But the Film Dances Around Bigger Issues

Hot on the heals of helming what may end up being the biggest movie of the year—Top Gun: Maverick—director Joseph Kosinski’s latest work is something of a change of pace for him (he also did TRON: Legacy, so legacy sequels are kind of his thing). Spiderhead is the story of an island-set, state-of-the-art penitentiary, operated by researcher Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who is running advanced drug trials of various concoctions by the same pharmaceutical company. To streamline the process, the “inmates” wear surgically attached devices on their lower backs that administer wild combinations of substances (after giving consent, in a bizarre twist) and the research team gauges the results. In exchange, the inmates will eventually get commuted or reduced sentences.

Abnesti believes in making his facility feel as little like a prison as possible, so the inhabitants can roam the Spiderhead penitentiary free of bars, cells or any restrictions (they can even wear their own clothes), and he makes himself available to talk with them about the trials…until he doesn’t. It all seems like a fairly utilitarian existence, but we also know from minute one of this film that Abnesti cannot be trusted. He’s too polished, too persuasive, too handsome (he even makes a joke about how good looking he is and how that makes his life infinitely easier).

The drug trials in Spiderhead are the emotional focal points of the movie, and they provide the cast multiple acting exercises in which they must shift from neutral to beyond terrified or happy or giggly or aggressive or articulate or horny. Abnesti adjusts the levels to test the limits of his concoctions, and the actors adjust their behavior in kind. It’s a fascinating thing to behold, but ultimately it feels like you’re sitting in an acting class and doesn’t amount to much in terms of the messages of the film. Miles Teller plays Jeff, our entry into this slice of madness. He occasionally questions the ethics or purpose of these trials, but in the end he goes along with them. The only real friend he has in this place is Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), and eventually the two start to develop feelings for each other, which Abnesti exploits as part of his experiments.

Spiderhead is written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the team behind the Deadpool movies and Zombieland) and is adapted from a New Yorker short story by George Saunders, so one might expect something a little more biting or even humorous, but the film’s only real razzle-dazzle element is Hemsworth himself, who gives as polished and quietly sinister a performance as I’ve seen him do. If you have an interest in watching this movie, he’s the reason to do so; he embodies the themes of how the powerful manipulate the powerless in society. I wouldn’t say the film is targeting pharmaceutical companies or governments, but those groups fall under the “powerful” umbrella. But the film’s dull-knife approach to social criticism doesn’t allow it to be as impactful as one might hope.

Eventually the trials take a turn and become less about the drugs and more about human behavior when Abnesti tells his subjects to administer certain dangerous products to other inmates, and it’s at that point that Jeff begins to push back and do as much digging into this strange setup as he can. The issue there is that it isn’t that difficult for viewers to figure out more or less what’s going on. Since we never trust Abnesti for a second of this film, it’s hardly a shock when his deception is revealed, and without that, the film’s key dramatic elements are neutered. I spent a great deal of my time watching Spiderhead wondering “What’s the point of this?” By dancing around bigger issues without diving into them with any conviction, the movie never builds up enough force to make its point, or any point. Come for the Hemsworth—he really is something special here—but if you’re expecting a deeper meaning, prepare to pop a few placebos and feel nothing.

The film is now streaming on Netflix.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.