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Spiderhead is a mixed bug 

Two prison inmates (Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett) form a strong bond during their sentences at an experimental penitentiary, run by a suave drug developer (Chris Hemsworth), in this sci-fi thriller. (107 min.)

Editor's note: Calendar Editor Caleb Wiseblood and Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal filled in for regular reviewers Glen and Anna Starkey.

click to enlarge GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD? To shorten his prison sentence, inmate Jeff (Miles Teller, right) volunteers to take part in daily drug experiments on a mysterious island, in the new Netflix thriller, Spiderhead. - PHOTO COURTESY OF NETFLIX
  • Photo Courtesy Of Netflix
  • GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD? To shorten his prison sentence, inmate Jeff (Miles Teller, right) volunteers to take part in daily drug experiments on a mysterious island, in the new Netflix thriller, Spiderhead.
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Caleb Regardless of how long or short its source material—a sci-fi tale originally published in The New Yorker—is, Spiderhead feels more like a Black Mirror episode stretched too thin than a feature-length thriller. I haven't read George Saunders' "Escape from Spiderhead," so I'm not sure how different it is from Netflix's adaptation. Hypothetically, if Spiderhead is a direct, word-for-word realization of Saunders' work, then I doubt I would enjoy reading it any more than watching the film, which starts with an exciting premise but had me feeling lukewarm by the end. The movie opens on an island where a state penitentiary is located. But the property's exterior looks more like a James Bond villain's lair or somewhere Tony Stark would be comfortable living than a traditional prison. The interior is just as bougie, and the jail is managed by Steve Jobs-types rather than burly guards or a hardened warden. The man in charge is Steve Abnesti, a business-casual hipster played with the right amount of charm and intentional cringeyness by Chris Hemsworth. Abnesti obviously wants to be liked by his inferiors and the inmates of the prison, but there's a corporate coldheartedness lurking beneath his polite demeanor. We learn that the island is somewhere convicts can volunteer to go and shorten their prison sentences by taking part in daily drug experiments. One of the drugs Abnesti tests out on inmate Jeff (Miles Teller) is a real-world love potion. These tests start to complicate genuine feelings that Jeff develops for another inmate, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). Their tangled relationship might be the most redeeming aspect of the movie—maybe Spiderheart would have been a more appropriate title?

Bulbul The movie could have definitely explored its own title better. Saunders' Escape from Spiderhead reveals that the "spiderhead" is the prison facility's control room where the drug experiments are monitored. All the other rooms, like the prisoners' bedrooms, common area, kitchen, and so on, stretch out from the control room like spider legs. Saunders doesn't give much detail to this story, though, and it intentionally reads like a collection of hurried journal entries. But Netflix's Spiderhead doesn't translate as well. The premise itself is intriguing but we have Saunders to thank for that. The movie almost uses that as a crutch and gives us a mediocre and bloated screenplay. Not every piece of writing needs to be blown up on the big screen with big-budget names. I'd be happier to watch Hemsworth reprise Thor again, and I was definitely happier watching Teller in Top Gun: Maverick (yes, New Times loves this movie, in case you missed it). While the story is wacky, it might have waited too long for the Hollywood treatment. We're all too used to mind-warping storylines thanks to shows like Black Mirror and Bandersnatch. So Spiderhead really needed to pull out all the stops to be truly memorable. Maybe it would have been a hit if it had premiered soon after The New Yorker published the story in 2010. Who knows?

Caleb I'm glad you brought up Top Gun: Maverick because Teller isn't the only link between the most shirtless movie of 2022 and Spiderhead. Both films share the same filmmaker at the helm, Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion, Only the Brave). I'm always intrigued when directors are able to put out two films in the same year. The most impressive example has to be Steven Spielberg's pair of 1993 releases, Jurassic Park and Schindler's List. When did he find time to sleep? I haven't seen Top Gun: Maverick yet, but I've heard great things. And I love Tron: Legacy to death. Maybe Kosinski should stick to his strengths—revisiting solo blockbusters from the '80s that never branched out into franchises. Footloose, Flashdance, E.T.—the world is your oyster, Joseph!

Bulbul Agreed, but I'm absolutely OK with E.T. never getting a sequel. Spiderhead did get it right with Hemsworth as its villain though. He brings Abnesti to life and shows us just how ruthless and punchable he is. I wish the movie explored more of Lizzy's tragic story that landed her in the facility. Crafted to be Jeff's love interest, Smollett's character doesn't exist in Saunders' version. They do have effective on-screen chemistry. But like most of the other elements, Spiderhead has wasted potential that leaves you wondering about a film that's best to forget. Δ

Staff Writer Bulbul Rajagopal and Calendar Editor Caleb Wiseblood wrote Split Screen this week. Send comments to [email protected].

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