Director Joseph Kosinski is currently riding high with his bigger-than-expected box-office success of Top Gun: Maverick, where the legacy sequel already zoomed around US$770 million in the worldwide box office at the time of writing. I was hoping he would strike another gold in his latest movie called Spiderhead, a small-scale sci-fi thriller based on George Saunders’ short story Escape from Spiderhead.
On paper, it looks promising: Joseph Kosinski returns to sci-fi territory after exploring the genre twice in Tron: Legacy (2010) and Oblivion (2013). The movie has Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick of Zombieland and Deadpool fame responsible for the screenplay. Kosinski even reunites with Miles Teller, marking their third collaboration after Only the Brave (2017) and Top Gun: Maverick and includes an additional star power in the form of Chris Hemsworth.
But it’s sad to say that Spiderhead is a dud. Right from the get-go. Despite its sci-fi elements, it’s not what you would typically expect from Joseph Kosinski. Certainly not in the same league of visual storytelling seen in his past two sci-fi movies. Instead, it’s more of a chamber piece set in a state-of-the-art prison facility on a remote island. We learn that Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a scientist who’s in charge of testing experimental drugs that have to do with controlling human emotion on selected prisoners.
The drugs come in the form of different liquid vials that are placed in a small insulin pump called MobiPak and attached to the lower back of the prisoners. Abnesti and his assistant (Mark Paguio) would administer the drugs using an app and watch how the participating prisoners react accordingly from the observation deck behind the two-way mirror.
Spiderhead is pretty much a talky movie and frankly, I don’t mind streaming this kind of cerebral sci-fi genre as long as the story manages to hook me with its fascinating concept. Too bad that isn’t the case because it’s painfully dreadful to sit through this 106-minute slog of a movie.
Seriously, I’m not sure what Kosinski is trying to achieve here. Is this movie supposed to be a sci-fi satire of sorts, especially judging by the inclusion of tongue-in-cheek humour? Or is this actually a cautionary sci-fi tale about false reality and pharmaceutical manipulation? Because neither approach works and it’s evident that Kosinski is out of his element here. He’s not the right director for this kind of sci-fi movie. Perhaps someone more qualified, say Alex Garland or David Cronenberg. Imagine Spiderhead is handled by either of these directors, the result might be more favourable than what we have here.
At the hand of Kosinski, I spend more time wondering when is this movie going to be over. The story barely intrigues me in any way and it gets worse with little tension as the movie progresses further. The monotonous pacing doesn’t help too and the cast is equally a letdown, particularly Chris Hemsworth being miscast as the mysterious scientist responsible for the experimental drug programme. He instantly reminds me of how he suffered from the miscasting problem back in 2015 when he plays a… hacker (!) in the ill-fated Blackhat.
The rest of the cast is forgettable with the exception of Miles Teller’s dramatic turn as Jeff, the confusing prisoner stuck in the facility trying to make sense of everything. Spiderhead does have its moments but just not enough to overcome most of the shortcomings. There’s a brief but effective scene involving one of the characters’ death and this is where Kosinski excels the most. It was both tense and suspenseful, complete with Joseph Trapanese’s ominous score filling in the background.
Spiderhead is currently streaming on Netflix, beginning June 17.