‘Spiderhead’ review: Chris Hemsworth prison-thriller is ‘Maniac’ meets ‘Severance’

Netflix's latest blends surreal horror with big sci-fi themes

Top Gun: Maverick took so long to come out that it almost fell behind the film director Joseph Kosinski made almost three years later. Shot during lockdown in an Australian bubble, Spiderhead  has a cast member in common with Top Gun but practically nothing else – mostly paying off as an enjoyable sci-fi satire until the last act sends it completely off the deep end.

Miles Teller (with no sign of his Top Gun ’tache) is Jeff, an inmate being held in a luxury prison on a tropical island. Life in the facility is pretty good – but we’re not really sure how Jeff feels about anything since only half of his thoughts are actually his own. Like all the other prisoners on the island, Jeff has volunteered to undergo an experimental drug trial that lets his emotions be controlled by rock star scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth).

Drugs with silly names are administered via an iPhone app, with a mood wheel dialling doses up and down using an implant that lets Abnesti make his inmates happy, hungry, talkative and horny whenever he wants to. Apparently using his human lab rats to conduct vital research into the kind of dangerous behaviour that landed them all in prison in the first place, Abnesti’s motives are clearly dubious from the off – with the whole setup looking like a five-star Island Of Doctor Moreau.

Spiderhead
Jurnee Smollett and Miles Teller in ‘Spiderhead’. CREDIT: Netflix

When Jeff starts getting real(?) feelings for fellow prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), Abnesti begins to meddle in more sinister ways – covering every hint of horror with a big goofy grin and a bit of ’80s soft rock. Kosinski juggles the story’s constant shifts from light to dark about as awkwardly as possible, but for the most part the film’s wildly uneven tone is its biggest strength.

Wanting to land somewhere between offbeat shows like Maniac and Severance, Spiderhead ends up missing the mark whenever it tries too hard – with a bizarre ending that unpicks any fine stitches the rest of the film sews into place. Often working well as a surreal horror story with big sci-fi ideas and a refreshingly odd tone, the setup falls apart as quickly as it’s built up, suggesting that it might have worked better as a limited series.

Thankfully, Hemsworth and Teller are both terrific. As likeable, dark and out of place as the rest of the film feels, both actors do a mostly great job until their scenes get silly. Hemsworth gives his best bro in a role that lets him tweak his comedy chops for creepiness, and Teller keeps himself suitably unreadable as an addict fighting pain with pain. His is a grounded role that stands completely at odds to everything else going on in the film.

Never quite weird enough, funny enough, or scary enough to be any of those things, Spiderhead feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Bristling with good ideas and two great performances, a rushed ending that dips into daftness ends up killing off what could have been a great pitch for an offbeat little TV show that we’re now never going to get to watch.

Details

  • Director: Joseph Kosinski
  • Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
  • Release date: June 17 (Netflix)
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