Thematic tethers may seem thin across the five-title filmography of director Joseph Kosinski — from heroic tales of real-world firefighters (Only the Brave) and fictitious fighter pilots (Top Gun: Maverick) to otherworldly odysseys like Tron Legacy or Oblivion and his latest, Spiderhead, which begins streaming Friday on Netflix.
As the inaugural Supertramp serenade suggests, this bleakly comic slice of speculative sci-fi about experimental drugs plays more clinically, intellectually and cynically than Kosinski’s other work. But its twitchy, testy temperament echoes Oblivion’s conflict of curiosity versus compliance, the absolution and addiction of a job found in Brave, the enveloping aesthetics of Tron, and a shockingly fruitful series of collaborations with Miles Teller (Brave, Maverick).
Most of all, Kosinski understands the lure of loneliness in large expanses, where communing with yourself can be a coin flip. It might refill your cup … or, as is the case in Spiderhead, turn you over to spill the last drop. In that way, Spiderhead intriguingly inverts Maverick’s heroic maximalism for a story about how humans often overdo our saline drip of self-confidence and self-care — not always to our physical detriment but certainly to a diminishment of contentment.
Kosinski is aided by a masterfully smug heel turn from Chris Hemsworth, a score from Joseph Trapanese that impressively lowers an oppressive boom when it’s required, and a nimble script from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool) that sends their cheeky cinematic conceits into collision with the social-engineering satire of their 2000s reality series, The Joe Schmo Show.
Spiderhead is a research-based penitentiary miles from civilization with no bars, abuse or tolerance for scofflaws who don’t label their food in the fridge. Convicts roam the grounds and snack on charcuterie. “Free Fridays” are a perk, from seaplane rides to nature hikes. The compound operates on a culture of mutual respect cultivated by its warden, Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth). He’s a metrosexual Milgram working on the government’s behest, and alongside put-upon colleague Mark (Mark Paguio), to test experimental drugs on inmates who have volunteered their bodies in exchange for reduced sentences. Kosinski, Reese and Wernick have all been through the Hollywood wringer, so it’s no accident that the smartphone-controlled precision of the drugs’ ebb and flow throws a light elbow to how movies often manufacture emotions along an assembly line of dopamine and oxytocin.
Jeff (Teller) has been at Spiderhead so long he’s practically a part of Steve’s scientific braintrust. (He’s not the one Steve constantly asks to fetch coffee and send back the putters he dislikes. That’s Mark.) Jeff was integral in the development of Laffodil (which prompts paroxysms of laughter for corny dad jokes and genocide descriptions), Verbaluce (which enhances a subject’s description of each drug’s effects), and Darkenfloxx (which amplifies a user’s anxieties to the point of feeling like they’re on fire).
Steve’s work blends a chemical castration of catastrophic impulses with an enhancement of empathy. “Only you can prevent another you,” Steve tells Jeff, whose past success makes him a prime subject in trials of the new Luvactin. This variation on Love Potion No. 9 works in hormonal moments, but the honchos want to know: Will it engender enduring affection? So begins a calculated escalation of Jeff’s emotions, which endangers him and his fellow inmates, prompts him to question what’s really happening here, and perhaps inspires an escape plot.
While the story tips toward violence in ways that aren’t exactly surprising, Spiderhead mercifully avoids sending its characters, or its audience, through a gauntlet of shopworn, simplified sadism. (Shot in 2020, the film doesn’t knowingly cop the vibe of Apple TV+’s Severance, but it’s a kindred spirit; Spiderhead, though, would be painfully protracted if stretched to a series.)
Plus, Spiderhead lends enough complexity to the evil that men like Steve do. “Beautiful people get away with too much,” he says. “I’ve benefited myself from time to time.” Endlessly equipped with verbal jive and jabs, Steve is an evil Peter Venkman in the body of Andrew Rannells — a prankster long ago consumed by his most dangerous predilections and teetering too close to an overdose on his own obsessions. He’s also an expert wolf in buddy’s clothing, jumping in to goofily sing along on the chorus of “She Blinded Me With Science” over Spiderhead’s PA system like a deceptive, demonic DJ. But you also learn why Steve listens to all that Doobie Brothers, Roxy Music and Hall & Oates. While this paraphrased song is not on his playlist, Steve doesn’t dance (with a white man’s overbite) to remember, he dances to forget.
That is a crucial point, too, in how Spiderhead chews on redemption and rehabilitation — suggesting it cannot be found in the pharmacologically enhanced rejection of memory but the painful recollection of every last trying detail. Tying Jeff’s carceral circumstances to something similar in Teller’s real-life past also elicits some strong muscle- and sense-memory work from an actor who, quite frankly, might want to consider working exclusively with Kosinski given his supernatural attunement to Teller’s actorly assets.
The conclusive voiceover of Spiderhead plays like Reese and Wernick themselves overdosed on Verbaluce when it should feel like a frazzled-nerve monologue into the middle distance. But they’re otherwise in lockstep with the idea of biochemical opportunity costs. Saying “yes” denies something else. Saying “no” can enable something worse. It’s a domino effect that, for too many of us, leads to the belief that we’re somehow invincible, that someone else’s number will always come up today. In that sense, it’s a perceptive parable for purposeful choices made by people amid the pandemic during which Spiderhead was filmed. There’s also a depressing clarity in how all the impulses Steve so impishly tampers with can be reduced to very small squares.
Although its characters are essentially ciphers, a key second-act turn feels a bit amateurishly underwritten and inconsistent, and the climax is clumsy in laying its cards, Spiderhead still fills a prescription for both playfully sinister satire and the continued evolution of Kosinski’s career.