It isn’t wrong to say that Chris Hemsworth has been typecast. If he isn’t a himbo, he’s just the funny guy making a cameo, with a few action lead moments thrown in. However, with Netflix Original Spiderhead, Hemsworth gets the chance to test his acting chops and go beyond what we expect from him as an actor. Directed by Joseph Kosinski and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, Spiderhead manages to bend genre with elements of dark comedy interwoven into a psychological thriller that attempts to explore biomedical ethics.
Based on The New Yorker short story by George Saunders, Spiderhead takes place in a state-of-the-art penitentiary run by brilliant visionary Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). No cells or walls separating the guarded from the guards, inmates wear a surgically attached device that administers dosages of mind-altering drugs in exchange for commuted sentences. By trading off their bodily autonomy, the inmates get small doses of freedom or at least the illusion of it. They dress how they want, eat what they want, and don’t have to adhere to strict schedules unless the drugs they’re being administered change their wants and needs. The drugs range from increasing sexual attraction, narrating everything they’re doing, and laughing fits to tightening aggression or fear—each one manipulating the inmate in a series of tests for scientific observation.
At times, they’re a better version of themselves. But at others, they become unrecognizable, doing only what the drugs and the men behind the glass want versus what they want. But when two subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), form a connection, their path to redemption takes a turn. Jeff is close to Abnesti, a confidant of sorts (a friend even); he begins to question the experiments and how they have begun to push the limits of free will altogether.
Like most dystopian science fiction, Spiderhead’s foundation is in a real-world atrocity—medical testing on inmates. This truth makes the film feel somehow detached from the ugly reality. Instead of being reflexive or referential to the history of medical testing on inmates, the science fiction nature of it all makes it seem like something out of reach for reality versus a genuine part of history that continues today. That said, Spiderhead in no way paints medical testing as something morally right in the world of biomedical ethics. Consent under duress is not consent. That is shown right from the film’s beginning with its opening scene where an inmate is administered a dose of a drug that causes fits of laughter regardless of duress. A low bar, but a bar cleared nonetheless.
To be honest, the biomedical ethics of the entire experiment are nothing more than a setting versus the film’s main topic. Even though the tests and their results propel the story and affect the relationships in the movie, the dynamic between Jeff and Steve is pulled into focus. Jeff has lost the people he loved, and his choice to get behind the wheel drunk is the direct cause. His choice haunts him, but as he begins to forgive himself through his relationship with Lizzy, Steve tries to see just how far he can exploit Jeff’s pain and regret.
This push and pull against each other that works the best in the film, but that leaves much of the science and moral questions by the wayside. Throw in the fact that Smollett’s Lizzy exists as a prop for the entire film, and it just falls short of having a lasting impact. While Spiderhead is a “just fine” movie, it could have been spectacular if it investigated moral quandaries more in-depth with the characters involved.
That said, Spiderhead is my favorite Hemsworth role next to him being directed by Taika Waititi as Thor. There is a selfishness and chaos that Hemsworth brings to Steve beautifully, expressly when those two elements turn into anger and determination. He plays a “mad scientist” role exceptionally well due to his acting and how Steve Abnesti is crafted. While he’s seen as a scientist, the revelations around how he chose drug names and the motivations behind it, as well as his own usage of the drugs, allow for a wonton disregard for the people he is experimenting on. The continual selfishness and callousness that Hemsworth displays as Steve is what makes him steal the film and also makes it hard for Teller to keep pace with him as Jeff.
Chris Hemsworth is great in Spiderhead, but it’s a baseline film otherwise. It’s basic science fiction and a basic psychological thriller, and the elements of comedy that are pulled throughout the film work best when it’s just out-of-place music playing and not humor vocalized. That said Spiderhead is a good watch, especially if you’re a fan of Chris Hemsworth and the genres the film plays in.
Spiderhead is available now exclusively on Netflix.
Chris Hemsworth is great in Spiderhead, but it’s a baseline film otherwise. It’s basic science fiction and a basic psychological thriller, and the elements of comedy that are pulled throughout the film work best when it’s just out-of-place music playing and not humor vocalized. That said, Spiderhead is a good watch, especially if you’re a fan of Chris Hemsworth and the genres the film plays in.