What a summer for Joseph Kosinski. He FINALLY got his Top Gun: Maverick out in theatres, to the delight of apparently everyone who sees it. Riding that high, Kosinski on the down low also made a Netflix movie released in Summer 2022, Spiderhead. It’s not going to be the cultural phenomenon that Top Gun was, but there’s enough compelling stuff in Spiderhead that will certainly put some interesting ideas in viewers heads, or at least wish they could get their hands on the N40 Love Drug.
Spiderhead is a remote, low security prison quasi run by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his right hand man Mark (Mark Paguio). Prisoners here like Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) are more like resort guests with one wrinkle: they have to comply with testing pharmaceutical drugs going to market. Some of these drugs like the N40 are awesome: basically allowing anyone a chance to hook up with anyone. However, there’s also drugs like Darkenfloxx, which by name alone clearly frightens the hell out of Jeff and Lizzy and the others. But to serve out their punishments, Jeff and Lizzy reluctantly go along, hoping that these drugs also help them forget the trauma of their own lives.
Robert Browning once said “a man’s reach should exceed its grasp,” a perfect encapsulation of Spiderhead. Kosinski’s attraction to this story is evident with all of the ideas Spiderhead tries to explore. Drug abuse, PTSD, figurative and literal prisons, suicide, therapy, I could go on and on. But with that much going on, shortcuts have to be made turning Spiderhead into a feature film instead of a TV series. Very obvious plot devices get used to move the plot along like voiceover or unnecessary flashbacks in the interest of time, and lots of interesting characters are pushed into bit parts to service the few main ones the story is interested in. From the guy who gave us the ginormous Top Gun: Maverick, it’s disappointing to see how small Spiderhead is, underselling the wealth of storytelling it hides in its mini prison.
Thankfully, the actors really give it their all to sell the sh*t out of this movie. Miles Teller and Kosinski worked together on Only the Brave; as such, the director knows how to extract the best of the actor, and Teller gives a heartbreaking performance as a man riddled with all sorts of guilt for his past sins, but slowly learning to move past them. Jurnee Smollet is also good in a small supporting role, hiding just an incalculable amount of pain underneath a sunnyish demeanor. But the standout here is Chris Hemsworth. I knew Hemsworth can be gregarious and funny from Thor. But THIS performance is straight up weird and unsettling, tricks I didn’t know Hemsworth had in his bag. The more unhinged Steve becomes the more exciting and captivating Spiderhead gets because of Hemsworth’s take on the character that’s narcissistic to the point of being untethered to reality.
Of all the juicy ideas Spiderhead tries to explore, I have one tiny one to add. Maybe reconsider the minimum security prison relying on voluntary pharmaceutical experimentation? I’m pretty sure every horror, sci-fi, and bleak drama story started out this way. No matter how much you want to punish yourself, make sure you get in writing you’re only allowed to test sex/attraction drugs, basically putting you in a prolonged honeymoon as you complete your prison sentence. Even a creepy Hemsworth couldn’t get you down then.