This article contains Spiderhead spoilers.
Spiderhead, the new Netflix movie from Top Gun: Maverick director Joseph Kosinski, stars Miles Teller as Jeff, a young man who is serving time for a drunk driving incident in which at least one person was tragically killed. Jeff has agreed to serve his time in what is actually a quite comfortable facility run by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who is using the inmates as subjects to test out a range of drugs that can control and alter one’s behavior and emotions.
At first Jeff, like the rest of the inmates, goes along meekly with the drug experiments, which range from giving him increased powers of description and language (via a concoction called Verbaluce) to making him and a total stranger incredibly horny for each other (Luvactin). Then there is the dreaded Darkenfloxx, which makes the subject incredibly paranoid, physically ill, and even violent, and which Abnesti begins administering as his tests take a new, darker turn.
The film is an adaptation written by Deadpool scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and it pulls from “Escape from Spiderhead,” a short story by acclaimed novelist and essayist George Saunders. As told by Saunders, “Escape from Spiderhead” is both chillingly bleak and darkly humorous, a slightly dystopian sci-fi fable that satirizes our dependency on pharmaceutical solutions while touching on themes of free will, guilt, and redemption.
“George Saunders is brilliant,” says Wernick in a chat with Den of Geek via Zoom. “His mind works like none other. He thinks very far left of center always, and we gravitate towards that. So the minute we read the piece we thought, ‘Oh man, we’re doing this.’ The problem was that it didn’t have a traditional feature beginning, middle, and end. So there was a fair amount of invention that we had to do to give it a three-act structure.”
Reese and Wernick make several additions to Saunders’ story, including the introduction of a major new character and changes to both Jeff and Abnesti’s histories. They also create a wholly original third act that pushes even further into satirical territory and substantially changes the ending. Here’s how.
Differences in the Spiderhead Story
The movie is actually pretty faithful to the story for about half of its running time, even though the story itself fills maybe 10 pages in print. A lot of early scenes—such as Jeff and a couple of random women being administered Luvactin, which makes them hot enough to start fucking right there in the workroom, and expressing their undying love for one another—seem lifted right from the page, even down to the dialogue and some of Saunders’ own prose, which also finds its way out of the mouths of the characters.
“In terms of taking that short story and adapting it, we used every bit of the turkey with regards to what George put on paper, because George is so brilliant,” explains Wernick. “So I think every little piece of dialogue, you know, we stripped down and put it in the movie because it’s so good.”
Many elements are retained from the story: the facility where Jeff and the others are confined is said in the story to be comfortable and full of amenities, which we see in the movie itself. There’s the method by which the drugs are delivered to the subjects, and the names for the devices and the drugs themselves. There’s also the increasing sense of dread as Abnesti’s experiments grow more horrifying and sadistic for seemingly no purpose, culminating in the awful death of a woman with whom Jeff had made vigorous, extended love just a few days before.
Where things take a major turn is with the introduction of Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), another inmate with whom Jeff begins a friendship that eventually turns into a full-on relationship free of the influence of the drugs. There is no Lizzy—who in the film works in the kitchen alongside Jeff—in the short story. But onscreen she is the catalyst that makes Jeff finally act against the machinations of Abnesti.
Both Lizzy and Jeff are portrayed in the movie as decent people who made terrible mistakes, and who are both so guilt-ridden that allowing themselves to be used for Abnesti’s experiments may be the only way they atone for their crimes. It is their love that breaks Abnesti’s hold over Jeff, whereas in the short story, Jeff just becomes too horrified at what Abnesti is doing to him and the others.
“Ultimately, we gave Jeff this love interest and made the movie thematically about how love conquers all,” says Wernick. “You can have all these external factors influencing your emotions and your feelings, but ultimately, the strongest drug of all is love, and it’s the one that that’s running through you all the time. Thematically, that really locked in the movie for us in terms of creating a love story between Jeff and Lizzy, two people who fall in love in the most inhospitable of climates for love: prison walls.”
Two additional elements are in the movie. First, it turns out that Abnesti has secretly developed a drug that can make the subject obey any command given to them, which is being covertly pumped into the subjects (in the story, there is a drug called Docilryde that has the same effect). Discovering the existence of that drug is a major incitement for Jeff to take action.
Also, while Mr. Abnesti continually says in the story and movie that he is working at the behest of a Protocol Committee for the mysterious corporate entity behind the drugs, we learn in the movie that there is no higher authority; the company in fact belongs to Abnesti himself and that he basically answers to no one but himself. This makes him even more of a Dr. Frankenstein figure.
George Saunders has a fantastic way with the English language and one of the strange delights of “Escape from Spiderhead” is the names that he gives to the various drugs deployed by Abnesti in the story, each with its own little copyrighted ™ next to it. Many of those names have been ported over from the story directly into the movie, with the drug’s effects replicated as well. Verbaluce makes one more eloquent and verbose. Although Luvactin is not given a name in the story, the effect is the same: it doesn’t just make one incredibly attracted to whoever is sitting opposite them, but it makes one fall deeply in love with that person, at least until the drug is withdrawn.
Some drugs are swapped out for others. For example, Jeff in the story mentions Vivistif, a sort of Viagra-type substance, while a major drug introduced in the movie is Laffodil, which makes one find the humor in just about anything and begin to laugh almost uncontrollably. Let’s also not forget Phobica, another movie-only chemical that creates unreasoning fear of whatever happens to be in front of the subject (in one instance in the film, a stapler sends Jurnee Smollett into paroxysms of terror).
Then there is Darkenfloxx, the unspeakable drug that makes one so distressed both physically and emotionally that they may actually seek to damage oneself while on it. Watching the effects of Darkenfloxx on a human being is genuinely upsetting, which is why it plays such a key role in the events of both the story and film.
The movie also introduces a secret drug called B-6, which is the ultimate formula that Abnesti is working toward; a drug that makes one susceptible to commands, thus allowing the person in charge of the drug to completely control the behavior of the subject (as mentioned above, it’s called Docilryde in the story, and Abnesti must get special permission from the committee to use it).
In both the story and the movie, the drugs are administered by a device called a MobiPak, which is attached to the subject’s lower back and filled with a variety of ampules containing the different drugs. Abnesti controls the MobiPaks through a remote-control device, which is visualized in the movie as more or less a smartphone (which Abnesti also uses to select the yacht rock that pumps constantly through the prison). Twice in the movie, physical violence causes someone’s MobiPak to rupture, sending an uncontrolled torrent of drugs into the subject’s system.
Jeff, played by Miles Teller, is the protagonist in both the story and the movie. In the literary version, he’s jailed after a bar brawl turns inexplicably violent, with an enraged Jeff smashing his opponent’s head with a brick and willfully killing him. In the movie, he gets behind the wheel of his car drunk, with his best friend and girlfriend (the latter’s presence not revealed until late in the movie) in the vehicle. He crashes the car and is thrown clear, but both his friend and lover die in the flaming wreck. He’s convicted of manslaughter and sent to Spiderhead.
Despite his horrible mistakes in both stories, Jeff is seen as a decent, genuinely remorseful person, still capable of love and caring, and it’s his empathy for others that leads him to revolt against Abnesti and his awful experiments.
Speaking of Abnesti, the character in both the movie and short story is a monstrously arrogant, smarmy asshole with a massive ego and a superficial chumminess that quickly becomes grating (it’s quite a unique performance by Hemsworth). His obsession with the effects of his drugs overrides any empathy or true concern he might have for his subjects.
In the movie at least, he’s also an addict: He’s got a MobiPak attached to his lower back and pumps himself with some of his formulas. In the story he’s got five (unseen) children; in the movie, he confides to Jeff under the influence of Laffodil that his father abandoned him at an early age, which seems to have led him to want to control others’ emotions and behavior.
Jurnee Smollett’s Lizzy is created for the movie. She is bright, attractive, and clearly drawn to Jeff, who hesitatingly reciprocates because he doesn’t feel like he should ever get close to someone again. Lizzy, meanwhile, lives in a world of her own pain: while we are initially told she’s in the facility for robbery, we learn later that she accidentally left her infant daughter in a hot car on a July morning for three hours while she went to work, killing her.
Mark Verlaine is Abnesti’s right-hand man. We don’t see much of him in the short story, but in the movie he’s played by Mark Paguio and he’s treated by Abnesti almost as a butler and bit of a punching bag, instead of an equal and fellow scientist. It’s also clear that Verlaine is harboring major reservations about the direction that the experiments are headed in, and he takes action toward the end of the film that helps determine the narrative’s outcome (none of which happens in the story).
In both the story and the movie, Abnesti uses Luvactin to make Jeff have sex and fall in love, one after the other, with two different women. On the page, the two women (named Heather and Rachel) are put in a room and Abnesti tells Jeff that he has to decide which of the two women should get dosed with Darkenfloxx. The idea is to see whether Jeff has residual feelings for either of the women. He doesn’t, but he’s just so appalled at the notion of either one getting Darkenfloxx that he refuses to choose.
This experiment is played out in different combinations, with each of the women then refusing to choose between Jeff and an inmate named Rogan, both of whom each woman fucked under the influence of Luvactin. But since the results aren’t conclusive enough for Abnesti, the experiment takes a decidedly more vicious turn: Abnesti is going to administer Darkenfloxx to one of the women and then prod Jeff with Verbaluce for his reaction.
The test goes hideously wrong as the woman, Heather, is overcome by the effects of Darkenfloxx and kills herself. But the very next day, Abnesti brings Jeff back, this time to witness Rachel getting Darkenfloxxed. Jeff refuses to give nominal permission to take Verbaluce into his system, and when Abnesti steps out to obtain permission to give him Docilryde, Jeff grabs his remote, floods his own system with Darkenfloxx, and kills himself rather than let Abnesti move forward. In a surreal coda, his consciousness floats away but not before a voice asks if he would like to go back, an offer he declines.
“We ultimately invented an ending that was a little bit different than George’s, where Jeff kills himself, just because we felt our protagonist couldn’t kill himself at the end of the movie,” says Wernick. “It would just be too big of a downer for the audience, especially when all that Jeff is seeking at the very beginning and throughout the movie is redemption. How does he ultimately redeem himself? We didn’t think it was in him killing himself.”
In the movie, Jeff, unknowingly under the influence of B-6, gives Abnesti permission to put Darkenfloxx into Heather’s body, adding to his own guilt after she commits suicide in front of them. But the next day, instead of bringing in a second random woman that Jeff had sex with, Abnesti brings in Lizzy with the full knowledge that Jeff does in fact care for her, drugs or not.
What Abnesti doesn’t know, however, is that Verlaine, finally sickened by what he’s assisting with, has put B-6 in Abnesti’s MobiPak to give Jeff a chance to fight back. As Abnesti administers Darkenfloxx to Lizzy, sending her into a suicidal rage, Abnesti and Jeff battle in the control room and Abnesti tries to kill Jeff. But his MobiPak is ruptured in the fight and he is overwhelmed with all the different drugs coursing into his system.
Jeff manages to get to Lizzy in time and pull the Darkenfloxx out of her MobiPak before it’s fully delivered. With police already on the way from the mainland thanks to Verlaine, Jeff forces Abnesti to open the main gate so they can escape, but Abnesti sends the other inmates after them by telling them over the facility’s P.A. that they’ll all go back to state prison if the program is shut down.
Jeff and Lizzy make their way through the prison, fending off attacks from their fellow inmates and ultimately get out. Abnesti, meanwhile, gets to his private plane and takes off, but still overwhelmed by the different emotions and sensations in his system, crashes into the side of a mountain. Jeff and Lizzy speed away in a motorboat, free and ready to make decisions without the use of the drugs.
“Plotwise, we realized we needed more,” says Reese about the additions to the movie, which does retain much of the flavor of Saunders’ story, if not his elegant prose. “We needed the exploration of love to be a stepping stone in Abnesti’s larger plot to create a drug that’s even more powerful that causes you to obey. That led us in some new fun directions. We also got to see our villain get some appropriate justice… what better way to kill your villain than with the same weapon he was using against others?”
Spiderhead is streaming now on Netflix.