It all having been done before does not necessarily mean it should not be done again. A narrative about a drug company experimenting on people to gain control; a story about institutions trying to remove bodily autonomy; a tale of how those charismatic and eccentric billionaires are actually deeply dangerous; an arc about how private companies profit off of the prison system and use it for dehumanised labour: all of this has been done. Seeing it all in one film is also hardly a novelty, as these ideas intertwine and overlap in very evident ways. But, each of these plotlines, or explorations, feel relevant, worthwhile and fertile for wider exploration. A lot of this is due to their inherent sincerity, delicate topics that relate very closely to the issues of right now. These are things we should cover, but how we cover them is perhaps more important than just covering them. Spiderhead envelops all of these, but does so in such an awkward and irresponsible way, one devoid of merit, resonance or intelligence.
The main issue with Spiderhead is tone. Many films take the trajectory of starting out seemingly goofy and fun, only to reveal a sinister underbelly that creates a forced tonal shift. What we thought was fun was never actually fun and this juxtaposition is a key part of the messaging: a reminder to look beyond surface levels and to interrogate even when things feel fine. It is also, political impact aside, just an entertaining story structure. It is one that Spiderhead somewhat employs, but one that is incredibly weakly executed. This is all clean, modern filmmaking: concrete, modernist facilities with sparse but stylish interior design (you know, Bond villain lairs by way of IKEA); a soundtrack full of pop music (often ironically deployed); a larger than life tech billionaire (who may or may not be the film’s villain — played here by Chris Hemsworth) and a whole lot of surface level style. It is all functional filmmaking, no flair (no original flair, at least) with a uniform feel of tepid competency. Another key part of this, and another overtly familiar part, is the entrenched ironic tone. This is from the writing team that brought you the Deadpool movies (2016 and 2018) and you can really tell.
Again, this is evident in the tone. There is a need to be quippy, in an almost self-aware way. We are never more than a couple of lines away from a joke, something joke adjacent or an ironic flourish. It is not that we start in this mode and transition into darkness, it is that this mode persists through and in spite of a darkness that is very much needed — and that very much needs its own space. The specific framework of this film is that incarcerated individuals (who have committed very serious crimes) have been allowed to take part in an experiment that gives them more rights, and a better quality of life. There is a knowing contradiction here, an evident lie from the start which presents the aesthetics of freedom as a way of imparting how our actual freedoms are denied. This facility, where the prisoners live, is modern, relaxed and — seemingly — incredibly friendly. All get along fine, for the most part, enjoying an open doors policy and being on first name terms with those in charge. The only catch is that the prisoners have to take part in experimental drug trials. All of them have these devices attached to them, seemingly grafted to their lower backs, in which vials of experimental drugs are put that then allow the overseers to control their body chemistry and conduct trials. All the drugs have stupid names, irritatingly so (evidently deriving from the George Saunders short story on which this is based — which I’m sure is excellent, as Saunders is an excellent writer), and the frequently used drugs (often given to aid other experiments) include ones that make you express yourself with more clarity, make you find everything amusing, make you want to have sex with whoever you are with (especially if they have taken the same drug) and one that makes you feel utter despair. This final one is used as part of a Milgram Experiment setup, a historical moment that the wider film is overly beholden to (to the point of feeling derivative).
All of these drugs are serious stuff and giving them to people completely removes agency and autonomy. It is only ‘allowed’ because they are prisoners and the forced positivity around it all is a device used to reflect how institutions routinely assault our rights. You can present this without indulging it, though. Spiderhead indulges. Rather than present this attempt to make the heinous harmless from a critical distance, the tone of the film keeps things comedic, or light. The narrative is very sinister but the filmmaking lacks a sinister edge. This causes the wrong kind of discomfort, targeted at the film rather than evoked from it. Early scenes involving the sex drug definitively depict sexual abuse. The removal of consent and the control exerted over people’s bodies is chilling. Again, there is a potential prescience here. However, these scenes exist in the register of humour, making awkward visual gags and not really being in line with the tone that should be applied. The constant reliance on irony is a problem, as is the using of bodies as the aforementioned visual gags, and there is even a gesture towards some gay panic humour. Yes, the organisation want to sell it as goofy, but the film doesn’t need to. There is a need for a powerful remove, for a purposeful contrast, but Spiderhead just does not do this.
Another large issue with Spiderhead is that it just gets utterly terrible. It is a film that is never really good, but is basely compelling by way of its conceit (though very familiar) carrying some inherent thematic impact. However, in the final act, it utterly falls apart both as a piece of filmmaking and storytelling. A whole bunch of jumbled plot reveals rely on actual misinformation and do not actually fit into the wider movie. It wants to get a few rug pulls in at the end, but it does this by introducing new rugs just as it is pulling them. A clear example is the handling of the main character’s (Miles Teller) backstory. We are given a late film reveal about his past that is built off of the film actively misleading the audience. A preconception is reversed but only because the film genuinely lies to the viewer earlier. In addition to this, the final reveal about the nature of the institution is both incredibly obvious and completely nonsensical. It was all based around a key thing but the definition of that key thing is awkward, and its impact strange. It boils down to being about control, obviously, but the levels of control and how they are created hop awkwardly between drugs and social conditioning. It mentions limitations but these are very unclear and, again, the reveal is dependent on the film misleading for a long time. Earlier conversations make far less sense and previous character motivations fall flat.
This brings us to Hemsworth’s character, and while he does a good job with a very bad script, this very bad script just does not sell him as the genius he needs to be (and that the text of the film keeps stating that he is). Evil marketing genius and CEO? It sells that, certainly. But the partner working with him (Mark Paguio) has this unearned level of deference. Again, the problem with the film is that everything is so evidently evil from the very beginning, but the film tries to tow the tonal line that it’s all good until we hit a sinister underbelly. This doesn’t work when the film practically rolls over at the start and shoves its underbelly in your face, then throws out some gags. The partner just complies and is clearly enacting fascism, but seems to also believe in a noble cause and considers his boss a genius. Why? I don’t know. The characterisation is so poor as we never see Hemsworth’s character create anything, invent anything or be involved in any scientific process. He is plainly presented as the divorced boss at the top, the one that gains all the benefits from the work of others and that bends their labour towards evil. Yet, we are supposed to buy that he is the core genius behind all of this, enough to keep people who evidently know better involved with his plainly evil projects. But, like so much of the film, it just can’t be arsed to make it make sense. Why put in the effort when you can fall back on broad stereotypes?
Spiderhead is just awful. It takes potentially interesting ideas and deploys them in the most pedestrian and inappropriate ways. All the characterisation is poor and the garbled tone makes it all fall apart. Yes, there is some compelling mystery at the start, but the end is so rushed and so barely coherent that it robs even these promising moments of any lasting appeal. There is the ghost of something good here, but the issues all stem from the adapted screenplay and the tone deaf direction. While the framework was never going to be overly original, the short story is from 2010, the actual film should not be this dreadful.