Director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and actor Miles Teller (The Offer) are leaving the Navy and heading to prison in Netflix’s Spiderhead, which is now available to watch on the streaming service. At the Spiderhead penitentiary, inmates volunteer to test various chemicals on their bodies in exchange for shorter prison times. These chemicals alter the thoughts, feelings, and actions of the test subjects with varying degrees of success.
Spiderhead is another welcome addition to the prison movie genre. Prison movies tend to revolve around penitentiary life and escape attempts as inmates dream about a better life outside the walls of their compound. Whether it’s a sci-fi prison or a 1950s pensionary, films set in prisons tend to be both riveting and exciting as they chronicle the adventures of an inmate and their quest for freedom.
A prison break is an excellent backdrop for a thriller, but converting the entirety of Manhattan Island in New York City into a maximum-security prison is pure genius. When Air Force One crashes on Manhattan in the year 1997, the iconic Snake Plissken, the Special Forces soldier turned criminal played by Kurt Russell, is presented with a deal: Rescue the President within 22 hours and receive a pardon for his crime or die from the explosives that were injected into his arm.
The 1981 film catches two creators at the right time in their careers. John Carpenter was hot off the heels of Halloween, which is one of the most successful and influential horror films of all time. Russell was a former child star looking to break into Hollywood who recently worked under Carpenter for the television film Elvis. With Carpenter’s signature visuals and score and Russell’s undeniable charisma, Escape from New York is a sci-fi action classic that still holds up in 2022.
Although The Shawshank Redemption has no supernatural elements, the ideas of escapism and hope for a better life play prominent roles in both Shawshank and Spiderhead. In 1949, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, is wrongly convicted for the murders of his wife and her lover. Dufresne is sentenced to life in prison and sent to Shawshank State Prison. Inside the prison, Andy befriends Red, played by Morgan Freeman, and the film follows their lives for nearly two decades.
The Shawshank Redemption is prominently considered one of the greatest films of all time due to its magnetic chemistry between Andy and Red and its redemptive story arc. Many of the inmates inside the prison might have committed deadly crimes, but the film creates sympathy and compassion for the prisoners, which is rare in a prison film. The feel-good ending is the perfect way to cap off a brilliant film.
The Shawshank Redemption is available to stream on HBO Max.
No “best of” list of prison movies can be trusted if it excludes one of the most important films in the genre, Escape from Alcatraz. The plot is very simple, but the attention to detail is quite complex. Frank Morris, a highly intelligent criminal played by Clint Eastwood, is sent to the maximum-security prison on Alcatraz Island. The warden makes it very clear that no inmate has ever escaped these walls due to its secluded location and high level of security. Challenge accepted.
The film meticulously chronicles Morris’ actions as he slowly plans his escape. Eastwood’s domineering presence commands the audience’s attention in every scene as the film builds toward his escape attempt. Escape from Alcatraz is just as suspenseful as it is entertaining, and the final act will leave audiences on the edge of their seats.
Escape from Alcatraz is available to stream AMC+.
Just like the inmates in Spiderhead, 12 Monkeys relies on the idea of volunteerism and its use as a way to escape. Bruce Willis stars as James Cole, a prisoner in the year 2035 who agrees to be sent back in time to 1996 to help find information about a deadly virus that will eventually destroy most of humanity.
This sci-fi time-travel story comes from the mind of Terry Gilliam, who crafts one of the most futuristic depictions of the penal system in cinema. The nonlinear narrative and fast-paced story may require multiple viewings for one to understand the hidden themes and messages. However, viewers are rewarded for their patience thanks to a technical tour de force from Gilliam and standout performances from Willis and Brad Pitt, with the latter receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
12 Monkeys is available to stream on Starz.
Though penitentiaries and psychiatric facilities are two different entities, Shutter Island feels like a prison due to its seclusion from society and strict set of rules that patients must follow. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his partner, Chuck Aule, travel to a psychiatric facility for the criminally insane on Shutter Island. The two marshals are tasked with investigating the disappearance of a patient who drowned her three children.
Part psychological thriller and part neo-noir, Shutter Island will leave the audience guessing throughout the entire film. The shocking ending is still talked about to this day. The film is another entry into the successful partnership between DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese. That alone should be enough reason to watch this intriguing mystery.
Shutter Island is available to stream on Showtime.
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