After the massive success of Top Gun: Maverick, the anticipation for Joseph Kosinski’s next movie, Spiderhead, was suddenly much higher. This was in spite of the fact that Netflix had done practically nothing to market the movie, even though it also features multiple major stars. A sci-fi thriller that loosely adapts George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, Spiderhead is now available to stream on Netflix.
Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are two of a number of inmates in a prison facility overseen by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). The facility offers greater freedoms than most prisons, and in return, the inmates voluntarily test experimental mind-altering chemicals at the behest of Abnesti. However, all is not quite as it seems, and Abnesti is actually far more manipulative and villainous than he seems, and Jeff and Lizzy’s blossoming relationship prompts them to resist Abnesti’s sadistic tests and exact their escape from the facility.
Spiderhead‘s story contains just enough mystery and intrigue to remain interesting throughout. It’s a well-paced film with subtle twists and turns that keep its narrative engaging, although it’s not without its issues. In many ways, its developments are predictable, leading to the ever-growing feeling that Spiderhead‘s climax will be far less exciting than the film itself seems to promise. This isn’t entirely true, as there is genuine tension and excitement right up until the moment that the credits roll, but Spiderhead is still largely underwhelming.
Perhaps Spiderhead‘s biggest asset is its cast. Not only does its core cast consist of three big-name actors, but two of them currently rank among the most successful movie stars in the world, with Teller’s Top Gun: Maverick role bringing him back into the limelight, and Hemsworth’s role in the MCU making him one of Hollywood’s most well-known actors. Teller, Hemsworth, and Smollett all offer excellent performances that underpin the film’s story with genuine emotional stakes, with the humanity of Teller and Smollett’s characters lending them undeniable sympathy, while the cold, calculating charisma of Hemsworth makes Abnesti genuinely detestable.
Despite sound performances, Spiderhead simply doesn’t feel as fresh as it should. Its chemical-based experiments offer an incredibly tame hint of body horror to its story, while the general premise feels as though it was written to be an episode of Black Mirror that was instead made feature-length. It doesn’t pack the punch it deserves to, and falls flat in many aspects.
This is a shame, because Spiderhead has genuine promise. Unfortunately, it just tells a story that’s been explored in many ways before by more interesting and visually striking films. There’s less charm in Spiderhead than it deserves, and it’s ultimately carried by the performances of its cast and Kosinski’s direction, which keeps everything running smoothly. It’s a worthwhile watch, but it’s still somewhat forgettable, and will undoubtedly fade into relative obscurity among other sci-fi prison movies.
Summary: Tense in places, and both well-paced and well-acted, Spiderhead is an enjoyable movie that doesn’t push the bracket in any conceivable way, leaving it feeling distinctly average.
Highlight: One particularly well-crafted scene where Jeff begins to question the nature of Abnesti’s experiments lends Spiderhead its only real moment of prison-break tension.