“Spiderhead” is rich in human resources.
For starters, the darkly comic drama about drug experimentation at a secluded prison – debuting on Netflix this week and based on “Escape From Spiderhead,” a short story by Geroge Saunders published in The New Yorker in 2010 – is helmed by Joseph Kosinski. If you can’t quite put your finger on why that name rings such a loud bell, he’s also the director of the celebrated recent box-office smash “Top Gun: Maverick.”
The film’s protagonist, Jeff, is played by one of his “Maverick” stars, Miles Teller, whose recent hot streak also includes a fine performance in the Paramount+ series “The Offer.”
Teller’s character has a love interest in Lizzy, played by Jurnee Smollett (“Birds of Prey,” “Lovecraft Country”), who possesses the ability to make you immediately invested in her characters and is quite good here.
Last but not least, its villain, Dr. Steve Abnesti, is played joyously by Chris Hemsworth, who, regardless of whether he’s stomping around as Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or inhabiting another character, has a habit of elevating a movie with his larger-than-life presence. And the muscular Aussie is largely responsible for “Spiderhead” working as well as it does.
And yet, despite all that talent, “Spiderhead” doesn’t work all that well.
Kosinski and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick – a tandem that penned the “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” movies – largely mishandle what is an undeniably intriguing premise. A movie ultimately about finding the best dosage levels for experimental drugs, “Spiderhead” never gets its own formula quite right.
The tale takes place in the top-secret Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center, located on an island in some beautiful part of the world. Inside its fortified walls, prisoners who have volunteered for a special program in exchange for shorter sentences largely roam free, are fed well and enjoy the vintage arcade game “Joust” and other perks.
The catch: Each of them has a device surgically attached to his or her back, via which Dr. Abnesti – who, in an effort to be chummy with them, prefers inmates address him as Steve – and his down-to-earth associate, Mark Verlaine (Mark Paguio), can administer varying amounts of drugs designed to, among other aims, make a person more talkative, prone to laughter, very attracted to the nearest person or, more unpleasantly, highly agitated. (The drug names, such as Verbaluce, Laffodil, Luvactin and, ugh, Darkenfloxx, are terrific – in that they’re uncomfortably believable, at least vaguely.)
Although Steve is extremely friendly with the inmates – especially with Jeff, to whom he’s downright collegial most of the time – he’s clearly on the hunt for certain desired results. He will turn up a drug’s dosage through an easily adjustable ring on his smartphone without hesitation.
Not surprisingly, he eventually pushes Jeff too far, which threatens all his work at Spiderhead.
“Spiderhead” takes a little too long getting to that point, which is but one of its issues.
Its primary problem is that you walk away from it feeling as though the pieces of this puzzle – “Spiderhead” is keeping a secret or two – don’t quite fit together tightly.
That said, there are enjoyable scenes, thanks largely to Teller and Hemsworth, the latter hamming it up – he enthusiastically quotes the song title “She Blinded Me With Science” – and being altogether charming, if often disturbingly so.
You’ll also learn, through repeated flashbacks involving Jeff and a late information dump concerning Lizzy, why each of them has been incarcerated and, perhaps, why they are drawn to each other. The character development in “Spiderhead” is stronger than its storytelling.
That “Spiderhead” was shot relatively early into the novel coronavirus pandemic – which, of course, led to a wide gap between the filming of the aforementioned “Top Gun” sequel and its release – is obvious almost from the get-go. The movie boasts a small cast, and it’s rare that more than three actors share a physical space at any one time. (The sets were constructed in a sports arena in Australia that had been shut down due to COVID-19, according to the film’s production notes.)
You want to give such movies a bit of a judgmental break, but you can’t escape the fact there was a stronger film that could have been made under the circumstances.
Kosinski pushes back against labeling “Spiderhead” a work of science fiction because, he says in the notes, “Everything in the film could be happening today.” Perhaps, and maybe that’s one more reason to consider viewing it despite its faults.
And if you happen to have some Laffodil in the medicine cabinet that may help elevate the experience. Just don’t watch it on Darkenfloxx – that would not go well.