Review: ‘Spiderhead’ combines sci-fi thrills of ‘Black Mirror’ and ‘Ex Machina’ on Netflix

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Spiderhead'

Joseph Kosinski has already directed the hit of the summer with “Top Gun: Maverick.” His new sci-fi thriller, “Spiderhead,” which drops on Netflix Friday, is a thematically thought-provoking but rather predictable addition to the genre of “Black Mirror” and “Ex Machina.”

Set in the near future, scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) runs a remote island prison lab that allows convicts to volunteer as medical subjects to shorten their prison sentences. One inmate, Jeff (Miles Teller), begins to question the reality of his emotions after being tested for drugs that generate instant eloquence, romance and paranoia.

It’s refreshing to see Hemsworth outside of Thor, but it’s double-edged: It works when he plays jocks like in “Rush” (2013), but feels unrealistic that a scientist would be this ripped, even if he does exercise by sparring with his assistant. Oscar Isaac was more believable in “Ex Machina,” but Hemsworth at least lends charm to his drug-addict scientist antagonist.

The protagonist is more believably cast as Teller, who burst onto the scene in “Whiplash” (2014) and is having a heck of a year as the lead in the miniseries “The Offer” (2022) and sidekick in “Top Gun: Maverick.” In “Spiderhead,” he’s admirably self-deprecating, deeming himself a 5/10 on the handsome scale, all the while haunted by the pain of survivor’s guilt.

His character development comes through interactions with fellow inmates — best friend Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett, “Lovecraft Country”), sex experimenter Heather (Tess Haubrich, “Treadstone”) and tattooed brute Rogan (Nathan Jones, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) — as well as voicemails for the girlfriend he left behind on the outside (BeBe Bettencourt, “Eden”).

Which crimes did each inmate commit? That’s the mystery of the script based on George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead.” Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick bring their same humor from “Zombieland” (2009) and “Deadpool” (2016), but they try too hard with a subplot regarding “Sh*t Finger” smearing poop on the prison walls.

In addition to well-timed flashbacks of the characters’ backstories, the screenplay does a formidable job of peeling back the onion of the lab itself, dropping hints in the names of the various chemicals and planting key information in the letters and numbers on each vial.

Unfortunately, these breadcrumbs build to an ultimate twist that isn’t really shocking in the way that, say, “Chinatown” (1974) reveals its sinister family subplot amid a massive conspiracy to control the water-and-power grid of Los Angeles. “Spiderhead” could have aimed higher, but instead settles for something smaller that we saw coming all along.

Kosinski directs with kinetic energy, particularly in flashbacks of partying and cruising. Inside the lab, his voyeurism steals heavily from Alex Garland in “Ex Machina,” from its overall atmosphere of a remote laboratory (shot in Australia during the pandemic) to its “male gaze” commentary on patriarchs watching subjects through glass windows.

He could have reined in excessively long sex scenes that make viewers uncomfortable. Maybe that’s the point, but it seems the director is enjoying it a bit too much. Don’t press play until after you’ve put the kids to bed; “Spiderhead” earns its “R” rating. While the indulgent sex romps belabor the point, the violence is done sparingly with nuanced craft.

In the end, “Spiderhead” clocks in at a brisk hour and 46 minutes, so go for it if you have a Netflix subscription and you dig sci-fi thrillers. It might not do anything new, but it poses fascinating questions that humans may soon face. Just know what you’re getting into and repeat after the inmates each time they agree to a new drug drip: “Acknowledge.”

3 stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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