Spiderhead review – Netflix’s prison-experiment fable is going nowhere

Tale of lab-rat detainees testing psychoactive drugs, presided over by a creepy Chris Hemsworth, rather loses its way

Here is a rather self-conscious sci-fi satire, directed by Joseph Kosinski and adapted by Deadpool screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese from George Saunders’s New Yorker short story Escape from Spiderhead, published in the collection Tenth of December – which someone in this film is actually shown reading, an unbearably smug piece of brand cross-promotion.

Miles Teller plays Jeff, a convict who some time in the future has been given the chance to serve his term in the relatively cushy Spiderhead unit for experimental psychology, run by the oleaginous Dr Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). Jeff is there on condition that he, like all the other specially chosen lab–rat prisoners, consents to have various hi-tech drugs flooded into his system from a special unit fixed to his lower back: drugs to make him irrationally happy or sad or horny (in the company of a similarly doped prisoner), while Dr Abnesti and his increasingly unhappy assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) look on from behind the two-way mirror. And in a Stanford-type refinement of cruelty, Dr Abnesti will also invite Jeff back to this observation deck and monitor his undrugged reactions on being told to choose which of two prisoners behind the glass gets the “pain” treatment.

Jeff’s relationship with another prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) will provide the movie’s crisis point and we will finally discover the full truth about why Jeff is in prison after a cheatingly fudged flashback scene. There is some fetishistic interest in the way Dr Abnesti administers all these dosages from his smartphone, though this hi-tech touch makes a certain vitally important old-fashioned tatty leather-backed file-binder a little bit implausible in this brave new world. A nice, creepy performance from Hemsworth, with Teller gamely going along with the script, but having stretched out the story idea to feature-film length, the film doesn’t really give the sense that it knows where it is going.

• Spiderhead is released on 17 June on Netflix.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Men in Black: International review – a galactically gormless fall to earth
This latest outing for the government agents tasked with policing pesky space invaders is a charmless and pointless affair

Peter Bradshaw

12, Jun, 2019 @1:00 PM

Article image
The most exciting movies of 2020 – blockbusters
Maverick swoops back on screen, Ghostbusters comes back to life and the 25th Bond film arrives (finally) in next year’s impressive array of big-budget knockouts

Guardian film

24, Dec, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
Thor: The Dark World – first look review
Hiddleston and Hemsworth’s impressive collective charisma rescues this followup to Thor, but the film is missing Kenneth Branagh’s directorial delicacy of touch, writes Ben Child

Ben Child

23, Oct, 2013 @11:18 AM

Article image
Extraction review – hokey, high-octane action thriller
Chris Hemsworth plays a super-tough mercenary on an all-guns-blazing mission to rescue a crime lord’s kidnapped son

Peter Bradshaw

22, Apr, 2020 @3:00 PM

Article image
Corrective Measures review – Bruce Willis flexes his mind control in superpowered prison drama
Splicing X-Men and Suicide Squad shouldn’t really work, but director Sean Patrick O’Reilly adds a subtle layer of social commentary to the comic-book schlock in a distinctive debut

Phil Hoad

05, Jul, 2022 @11:00 AM

Article image
Thor: The Dark World – hammering home Marvel's world domination
The manner in which the Disney-owned studio is weaving together characters and narratives over multiple movies is a wonder to behold. And it’s not even nearly over

Ben Child

09, Aug, 2013 @3:12 PM

Article image
Mortal Engines review – Peter Jackson's steampunk Star Wars stalls
Jackson has turned Philip Reeve’s dystopian adventure novel into a tiringly frenetic and derivative fantasy-adventure movie

Peter Bradshaw

05, Dec, 2018 @8:00 PM

Article image
Come Away review – an indigestible lump of kid-lit stodge
Combining elements of classic children’s books and starry cameos, this leaden family fantasy is flatter than an empty sweet wrapper

Peter Bradshaw

17, Dec, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Violet Evergarden: The Movie review – a breathtaking return for Kyoto Animation
Stunning visual details, from blooming flowers to morning dew, illustrate our troubled hero’s growth in this bittersweet sequel

Phuong Le

30, Jun, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
The Huntsman: Winter's War review – a fantastically dull fantasy adventure
Snow White and Kristen Stewart have been chillingly banished from this derivative follow-up, in which Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt prove hard to warm to

Peter Bradshaw

07, Apr, 2016 @9:00 PM