Pop Culture

Reviews For The Easily Distracted:
Spiderhead

Title: Spiderhead

Describe This Movie In One "Comfortably Numb" Lyric:
PINK FLOYD: Relax, just a little pinprick
There'll be no more aaaahhhhhhh
But you may feel a little sick
Brief Plot Synopsis: Drugs are bad, except when they're good.

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: 2 Supertramp albums out of 5.
Tagline: "How far would you go to fix human nature?"

Better Tagline: "Love (and a speedboat) are all you need."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: The inmates at Spiderhead's research-oriented detention complex have it better than most. There are no guards or bars, for example, which is part of the contract that prisoners like Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) have signed with supervisor Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). That same agreement, however, allows Steve to inject them with experimental drugs, some of which appear to have less than therapeutic applications.

"Critical" Analysis: Spiderhead, based on the George Saunders short story (albeit with a starkly different ending) and directed by Joseph (Top Gun: Maverick) Kosinski, dares to tackle the question that's dogged human history from Christ to John Lennon: is love really all you need?

"Love," in this case, being a chemical compound known as "N-40" and colloquially referred to as "Luvactin." Steve, Spiderhead's mysterious director, is convinced he can perfect and market it to help mankind extricate itself from its morass of hatred and violence.

A noble effort, to be sure, though Steve's informal demeanor clearly masks a more sinister agenda. To wit, if his research is so beneficial, why does he need to experiment on prisoners? Our suspicions are aroused in short order, as the trials quickly go from disquieting ("Laffodil") to full-on human rights violations.

Though Steve's most diabolical torture might be subjecting the inmates to yacht rock.

As prisons go, Spiderhead ain't bad. There are spacious rooms, decent food, arcade games, and only the slightest chance that one of the chemicals being injected directly into your spine via mobile app will cause you to go insane and kill yourself. Pretty sweet deal, really.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, Jeff is Steve's favorite subject. But even his obvious fondness for the younger man isn't enough to keep him from putting Jeff in the hot seat when Steve's "superiors" press him to go to greater extremes to prove N-40's effectiveness.
click to enlarge Just your usual prison boat outing. - NETFLIX
Just your usual prison boat outing.
It is a mildly interesting concept that loses a bit of entertainment value thanks to horrifying real world precedents. And besides that, we learn precious little about most of the inmates aside from Jeff, who went to prison for DUI manslaughter, and Lizzy, who's in for ... something worse

Jeff was fond of muscle cars and overindulging at keg parties in his former life, but there's no other indication as to why Steve is so taken with the young man, beyond seeing him as useful to completing the trials. It helps maintain an aura of sinister mystery (sinistery?), but doesn't go very far in fleshing out a feature-length film.

Tensions ratchet up when Steve, in apparent contrast to his frequent assertions that he's altruistically  "trying to change the world," decides to use Jeff's affection for Lizzy against him, threatening to dose her with a lethal amount of, uh, "Darkenfloxx," spurring him into action. Easy enough to do when your victimizer is fond of getting high on his own supply.

Spiderhead is pretty enough (and Hemsworth has to be the suavest pharmacist since Theodoric of York), but it feels like something more suited to a Black Mirror anthology series than the big screen. Guess it's a good thing it's on Netflix.

Spiderhead is now streaming on Netflix.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar