Psychology studies are riddled with past experiences that read like dystopian science fiction. Take the famous Stanford prison experiment, in which a group of volunteers were divided into “guards” and “prisoners” in an effort to discern how social roles influence behavior. The experiment was canceled after six days due to the nightmarish results. In this context, the configuration of Netflix spider head is nothing out of the ordinary, other than the high-tech island prison that looks like a modernist art museum.
Deadpool and Zombieland series Screenwriting duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick based the film on George Saunders’ 2010 short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, in which a prisoner named Jeff (played in the film by Miles Teller) is put through a series of trials pharmaceuticals with drugs that manipulate his emotions and actions, especially towards other prisoners who are also dosed. The short story is something of a thought experiment, playing with the ideas of free will and morality under pressure. Director Joe Kosinski – currently in the lead with the almost simultaneous release of his film Top Gun: Maverickalso featuring Teller – keeps those themes intact, with a generous dollop of Marvel Cinematic Universe‘s Thor, Chris Hemsworth, dancing to 80s soft rock.
Hemsworth stars as Steve Abnesti, head of Abnesti Pharmaceuticals, the company that somehow persuaded the feds to loan him a few dozen maximum-security prisoners to serve as human guinea pigs (which might seem like a stretch, until what you learn about the unethical wilderness story of the US government’s experimentation on prisoners). From a tropical island fortress, Abnesti and his team test “emotional regulation” drugs that can produce love, lust and fear on command – shades of MKUltra and the CIA dosing unwitting civilians with psychedelics.
Despite the dystopian premise, Kosinski brings a light touch to spider head. Colorful cinematography and fiery editing contrast the tragic backstories and dark living conditions of the characters, and highlight the disparity between the chemically-induced nightmarish highs and lows of Abnesti’s experiments. Midway through the film, Abnesti asks Jeff to describe the worst day of his life as two’s trip on a feel-good drug. Jeff recalls the day his father abandoned him, laughing hysterically the whole time. This general mood of emotional boost runs through everyone spider headand Kosinski effectively exploits its sinister undertones.
Much of the burden of maintaining the film’s wacky tone falls on Hemsworth, whose character combines the sociopathic coldness of a CEO, the occasional sadism of a prison guard, and the insecurity of a suburban father who fears death. to have lost its advantage. Abnesti desperately wants Jeff to love her, for reasons that are never completely clear. He doesn’t seem to care whether anyone else on the island lives or dies; he uses Jeff’s tentative love interest, Lizzy (Lovecraft Country‘s Jurnee Smollett), as an emotional cudgel, and he’s thrilled when another prisoner resorts to self-harm during a trial. He treats Jeff differently, though it’s unclear if he values the man more as a friend, a plaything, or a whetstone for Abnesti’s skills in manipulation and intimidation.
Hemsworth plays Abnesti as such a hollow man that it’s clear from the start that he’s not what he seems. But it keeps the character grounded enough that he doesn’t get into Bond villain territory. As a means of regulating the emotions of the audience, this performance is effective – more so than the musical palette (jazz for sardonic moments, strings for sentimental moments), which is both manipulative and predictable. In general, spider head works best when it operates in an ironic register rather than in a sincere register. Reese and Wernick’s attempts to add emotionally charged backstory to these characters play like the padding they are; it’s obvious that spider head is a 106-minute film based on a short dialogue story.
The names of experimental drugs in spider head are kind of silly, but no dumber than the names of actual pharmaceutical drugs: the speech-enhancing serum in the story is known as “Verbaluce”, while “Vivistiff” improves feelings of arousal. The hardest to swallow is “Darkenfloxx”, the drug that sends users into a black hole of terror and despair. Again, though, Saunders and the writers aren’t too far off the mark.
But one thing about spider head doesn’t match the real world, and the nagging contradiction almost undermines the film. In the film, Jeff is repeatedly asked to administer Darkenfloxx to other inmates, a request he refuses even when threatened with significant personal consequences if he does not cooperate. Ultimately, it turns out to be part of a larger experiment to see if subjects can be programmed to overcome “human nature” by “hurting[ing] those they love. Which is fine, except humans hurt the ones they love all the time, without needing future sci-fi drugs as an excuse.
They do it for reasons they often barely understand, an aspect of human psychology that spider head doesn’t really matter. For all of his heartbreaking backstory and overwhelming sense of guilt, Jeff ultimately always acts out of rational self-interest. It is a creature rarely seen outside of philosophical assumptions. The same goes for the other characters in the film: Throwing away the keys to the prison pantry, a prisoner who assaults Jeff and Lizzy stops because they offer him food. In real life, he’d be just as likely to kill them both and take the keys anyway.
For a film so realistic in other areas, spider head seems to deliberately circumvent the fact that most people don’t need to be pushed so hard to hurt others. Just look at Milgram’s experiment, another famous psychological test in which a majority of subjects administered what they believed to be painful electric shocks to others, with far less persuasion than Jeff receives in the film. Is Jeff the exception to this rule? Is it a naive film or simply full of hope? We all like to think we wouldn’t hurt another person just for our own benefit. By reassuring the public that they, like Jeff, are better than that, spider headthe creators miss an opportunity to give the audience something really stimulating to chew on.
spider head streaming on Netflix from June 17.