Psychology studies are riddled with past experiments 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 attempt to discern how social roles influence behavior. The experiment was called off after six days due to the nightmarish results. With that context in mind, the setup for Netflix’s Spiderhead doesn’t seem all that outlandish, apart from 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 movie by Miles Teller) is subjected to a series of pharmaceutical trials with drugs that manipulate his emotions and actions, especially toward other prisoners who are also being dosed. The short story is something of a thought experiment, toying with the ideas of free will and morality under pressure. Director Joe Kosinski — currently riding high on the nearly simultaneous release of his movie Top Gun: Maverick, also starring Teller — keeps those themes intact, with a generous dollop of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor, Chris Hemsworth, dancing to ’80s soft rock on top.
Hemsworth co-stars as Steve Abnesti, head of Abnesti Pharmaceuticals, the company that somehow persuaded the federal government to loan it a few dozen maximum-security prisoners to serve as human guinea pigs (which might seem far-fetched, until you learn the wildly unethical history of U.S. government 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.
In spite of the dystopian premise, Kosinski brings a light touch to Spiderhead. Colorful cinematography and spirited editing contrast with the characters’ tragic backstories and bleak living conditions, and highlight the disparity between the chemically induced highs and nightmarish lows of Abnesti’s experiments. Midway through the film, Abnesti asks Jeff to describe the worst day of his life as the two trip on a feel-good drug. Jeff recalls the day his father abandoned him, laughing hysterically the entire time. That general vibe of emotional whiplash runs throughout Spiderhead, and Kosinski effectively mines its sinister undertones.
Much of the burden of maintaining the film’s farcical tone falls on Hemsworth, whose character combines a CEO’s sociopathic coldness, a prison guard’s casual sadism, and the insecurity of a suburban dad who’s worried he’s lost his edge. Abnesti desperately wants Jeff to like him, for reasons that are never fully clear. He doesn’t seem to care if 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 delighted when another prisoner resorts to self-harm during a trial. He treats Jeff differently, though it’s unclear whether he values the man more as a friend, a plaything, or a whetstone for Abnesti’s skills at manipulation and intimidation.
Hemsworth plays Abnesti as such a hollow man that it’s clear early on that he isn’t what he seems. But he keeps the character grounded enough that he doesn’t spin out into Bond-villain territory. As a way of regulating the audience’s emotions, that performance is effective — more so than the musical palette (jazz for sardonic moments, strings for sentimental ones), which is both manipulative and predictable. In general, Spiderhead works better when it’s operating on a tongue-in-cheek register rather than a heartfelt one. Reese and Wernick’s attempts to add emotionally charged backstory to these characters play like the padding that they are; it’s obvious that Spiderhead is a 106-minute film based on a brief, dialogue-driven short story.
The names of the experimental drugs in Spiderhead are rather silly, but no sillier than actual pharmaceutical drug names: The story’s speech-enhancing serum is known as “Verbaluce,” while “Vivistiff” enhances feelings of arousal. The hardest to swallow is “Darkenfloxx,” the drug that sends users down a black hole of terror and despair. Again, however, Saunders and the screenwriters aren’t too far off reality.
But one thing about Spiderhead doesn’t match up with the real world, and the nagging contradiction nearly undermines the film. In the movie, Jeff is repeatedly asked to administer Darkenfloxx to other inmates, a request he refuses even when threatened with significant personal consequences if he doesn’t cooperate. Ultimately, it turns out that he’s part of a larger experiment to see whether subjects can be programmed to overcome “human nature” by “hurt[ing] the ones they love.” Which is fine, except that humans hurt the ones they love all the time, without needing science fiction future-drugs as an excuse.
They do so for reasons they often barely understand, an aspect of human psychology that Spiderhead doesn’t really account for. For all his heartbreaking backstory and crushing sense of guilt, Jeff ultimately always acts out of rational self-interest. He’s a creature rarely seen outside of philosophical hypotheticals. The same is true for other characters in the film: Tossed the keys to the prison pantry, a prisoner who’s assaulting Jeff and Lizzy stops because they’re offering him food. In real life, he’d be just as likely to kill them both and take the keys anyway.
For a film that’s so realistic in other areas, Spiderhead seems to deliberately step around the fact that most people don’t need to be pushed that hard to hurt others. Just look at the Milgram 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 movie. Is Jeff the exception to this rule? Is this a naïve film, or merely a hopeful one? We all like to think that we wouldn’t hurt another person simply to benefit ourselves. By reassuring audiences that they, just like Jeff, are better than that, Spiderhead’s creators miss an opportunity to give audiences something truly thought-provoking to chew on.
Spiderhead streams on Netflix starting June 17.