Netflix hasn’t found much middle ground when it comes to high-profile original films. The projects produced by the streaming studio have typically been critical darlings that generate heaps of awards buzz (i.e., Mank or Roma) or forgettable flops that deliver the Hollywood equivalent of setting a mountain of money on fire. The sci-fi drama Spiderhead is the rare exception, delivering a clever, satisfying thriller that manages to avoid underselling or overselling its premise.
Directed by Top Gun: Maverick filmmaker Joseph Kosinski from a script penned by Deadpool and Zombieland duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Spiderhead is based on George Saunders’ short story Escape from Spiderhead. The film casts Marvel Studios veteran Chris Hemsworth as the overseer of a futuristic, free-roaming prison where the inmates have volunteered for tests with experimental, emotion-controlling drugs in exchange for reduced sentences. Miles Teller (Top Gun: Maverick, Whiplash) portrays a prisoner who begins to suspect something is amiss in the experiments and attempts to find a way to protect both himself and a fellow inmate he cares for, who is played by Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country).
On the surface, Spiderhead could be played in two very different ways. On one hand, the film has all the necessary ingredients for a dark satire of the prison industrial complex and the pharmaceutical industry. On the flip side, there’s plenty of potential for a straightforward thriller given the cast and creative team involved in the film. Spiderhead opts for the latter, and while it would be interesting to explore the setup’s satirical potential, it plays remarkably well as a more traditional, tense drama with some light sci-fi accents.
Hemsworth is in rare form in the film, which gives him the opportunity to channel all of the charisma that made him one of Marvel’s most popular superheroes into a character on the opposite side of the moral divide. His Spiderhead character, research scientist Steve Abnesti, is a brilliant, sociopathic narcissist who puts all of Hemsworth’s charm to sinister use in the film, and the MCU actor steals every scene he’s in with a smug grin and snappy dialogue that take the edge off every horrible, manipulative act his character commits.
Teller and Smollett also deliver fine — if not particularly standout — performances as the star-crossed inmates who find themselves at the center of Abnesti’s latest experiment. Their characters are intended to exist in a constant state of semi-dazed compliance due to the cocktail of drugs they’re subjected to on a daily basis, but when the story calls upon them to explore more extreme points on the emotional spectrum, they give those moments all the intensity they demand.
In a supporting role, Mark Paguio also adds a surprising amount of depth to his portrayal of Abnesti’s assistant at the prison, who finds himself increasingly troubled by their experiments. Paguio’s character could have easily slipped into the background of the story, but he brings a genuine sense of conflict to his character that provides a great counterpoint to Hemsworth’s performance in many of their scenes together.
Although Spiderhead goes to some dark places in its narrative, it manages to keep its head above water while doing so, and never gets bogged down in what could have been some heavy philosophical pondering of morality, grief, forgiveness, and so many other complicated themes. It’s a film that seems to have a clear picture of what it wants to be, and it competently delivers a suspenseful, thrilling story without any extraneous decoration or narrative meandering. That sort of efficiency isn’t exactly common in Hollywood these days, and makes Spiderhead feel uniquely satisfying when the story wraps up.
Moody, smart, and entertaining, Spiderhead isn’t likely to be Netflix’s next awards darling, but it doesn’t aspire to be. Instead, it delivers an entertaining thriller that checks all the boxes for a rewarding film experience — and that’s OK too.
Sci-fi thriller Spiderhead premieres June 17 on Netflix streaming service.
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