Marvel actors must be desperate to play something, anything, that isn’t run of the mill heroics. Since retiring his shield, Chris Evans has launched an entire second career by portraying heels and a-holes, including on Netflix; you could sense Scarlett Johansson’s joy as she shouted Adam Driver into submission in Marriage Story, also on Netflix; and now Chris Hemsworth appears downright giddy as he shimmies across the screen as the most malevolent tech bro this side of Palo Alto in Spiderhead—which is about to debut on Netflix.
Yet more than just a showcase for the insidious side of Hemsworth’s now familiar comedic charisma, Spiderhead is also a throwback to the type of witty and wicked B-movie that acts as both star vehicle and smarter-than-it-seems chamber piece. It’s also an antiquated form of genre moviemaking that only gets released on streaming these days.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski—and developed, filmed, and edited while his last feature, Top Gun: Maverick, sat on the pandemic shelf—Spiderhead appears at a glance to be of a piece with most weekly Netflix releases: a chance for relatively big names to mug for the camera on a streamer that until a few months ago seemed unbeatable. And what a mug it is as Hemsworth absolutely devours the scenery with an irresistibly off-beat turn. But there’s an acuity to Spiderhead, and a fairly sharp satire with a lot of style despite its insulated setup. To be sure, the movie is very contained in its walled off premise about a mad genius and the prison he made out of paradise, but the creative freedom that comes with setting the film on one tropical island location allows Kosinski and Hemsworth to grind down to a base level the nastiness of their creation.
Working from a script by scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who are best known for the Deadpool and Zombieland movies, and here adapt a short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead is a sci-fi pic that takes a heavy-handed allegorical premise and uses it to make an enjoyable thriller about the menace of big pharma, regret, and Thor’s ability to dance to yacht rock. The film doesn’t necessarily seek to dive into the deep end of the ideas presented here, but there’s an oft-forgotten pleasure to wading in the shallows, especially when they look this good.
Hemsworth’s mephistophelian smile here is worn by Steve Abnesti, an employee of a pharmaceutical company and veritable Dr. Moreau to his island of social misfits. None of the men and women in his “care” are actual monsters, but society has deemed them so, each having been convicted for a crime so apparently heinous that even the viewer is initially forbidden from knowing their backstories. That even includes Miles Teller’s depressed and despondent Jeff, a young man who enjoys being Steve’s favorite patient but little else in a tropical setting that looks a whole lot like the Australian coast.
Jeff as well as the other prisoners are there by choice, volunteering to be human guinea pigs for Steve’s unnamed pharmaceutical company, which is testing a variety of new experimental drugs designed to trigger everything from joyful laughter to extreme romantic infatuation. Although when not on the drugs, Jeff’s real heart might belong to the newest patient in their trendy, ultra modern house-cum-prison, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). Like Jeff, she seems inconsolably sad at times, yet nonetheless appreciates Steve’s deceptive benevolence when he’s just testing a heightened case of the giggles on their bodies. But slowly the tests grow more nefarious, and the experiences more intense. Steve allegedly offers each participant an out, asking if they “acknowledge” and consent to the drugs about to be pumped into their bloodstream, yet if they refuse, Steve’s company is always ready to send them back behind bars on the mainland. And Steve himself proves surprisingly quick to drop that easygoing surfer dude grin.
As with previous Kosinski pictures, there’s an aesthetic precision to Spiderhead that belies the simplicity of its story. From its very opening credits sequence in which an overhead camera tracks Steve’s personal biplane soaring across crystal blue waters while a Supertramp tune plays on, the director seems to be indulging a mirthfulness absent from films like Oblivion or Only the Brave—it even might be gently mocking the solemn aerial bombast of the director and Teller’s last movie, Top Gun: Maverick. This cheekiness is likely a product of Reese and Wernick’s typically skewed sensibility, and it proves to be quite harmonious with the director’s formalist eye.
Which might be to say the movie has a visceral heft that gives weight to the sometimes minor plotting in which glorified lab rats realize their trade off for a bright, luxurious prison instead of orange jumpsuits was a raw deal. And as those leading test subjects, Teller (who’s developing a strong relationship with Kosinski at this point) and Smollett do fine work at pulling out an emotional core centered on the cyclical nature of regret and repeated mistakes.
Their earnestness provides a solid counterweight to Hemsworth’s winsome mugging. It also gives the movie just enough grounding to seem cathartic in the moment as this zippy exercise in style races toward a third act where the high wears off and masks come down. Without getting into spoilers, the climax will play out exactly how you’ll expect; heady ideas about the power imbalance in the prison industrial complex, especially when capitalist interests get involved, is hardly examined but heavily implied. Like Steve, there’s one drug above all others this movie is chasing: the buzz of high-concept entertainment.
And in those parameters, Spiderhead pleasingly succeeds. Sometimes a sci-fi thriller doesn’t need to be anything more, even if it has the potential to be so. The straightforward good-and-evil dichotomy the flick ultimately favors makes for a nice entertainment where all the major talent gets to show off their craft, and in the moment it feels like a rush. The effect is fleeting, but you’ll have fun in the moment.
Spiderhead premieres on Netflix on Friday, June 17.