Sunday, September 24, 2023

‘Spiderhead’ Never Spins a Convincing Web

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Joseph Kosinski is riding high at the moment. He has one film decimating the box office, TopGun: Maverick, and another film debuting on Netflix starring Chis Hemsworth. I haven’t seen Top Gun yet, but I have seen Spiderhead. After seeing the latter I’m not in such a hurry to see the former.

Spiderhead is a thriller operating on a premise that feels ripped from a “Twilight Zone” or “Dark Mirror” episode. Only it isn’t as interesting as what they might come up with. Kosinski does a fair job of making us think Spiderhead has a point or is going somewhere but by the end, it becomes obvious how facile its themes and ideas are.

Miles Teller plays Jeff, a man in prison for drunk driving and killing his best friend. We know this because Kosinski gives us numerous flashbacks to this traumatic moment. However, Spiderhead doesn’t seem like your regular prison.

That’s because it’s not. It’s an isolated lab of sorts on a tropical island where Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is working on a series of drugs to help mankind. You know that old rag, where chemicals affect emotions and we find out there’s no cure for sadness, you just have to live with it, yada yada.

Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have taken a short story by George Saunders, “Escape From Spiderhead” and sandpapered out everything that might be interesting. It’s not didactic because it has nothing to say. Yet, it is didactic becomes Reese and Wenick come off as almost patronizing.

Teller’s Jeff is fine, everyone is, except in that fine-ness is a sort of boredom that permeates Spiderhead. Spiderhead the facility is interesting, much more so than Spiderhead the film. As a facility it has no locked doors, except the ones at the entrance, Prisoners are allowed holiday weekends where they are flown to one of the surrounding deserted islands to hike and wander about. They have menial jobs inside the compound, cooking, and cleaning, it’s a prison without bars and where the guards are almost indistinguishable from the prisoners.

Jeff meets another prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) and the two quickly begin to flirt. Much of Lizzy’s backstory is a mystery until the end, where not just Lizzy but EVERYTHING is explained. The only problem is that Reese and Wernick’s script isn’t nearly as complex as they think it is. Most moviegoers will pick up the “clues” Kosinski drops throughout the film and figure out the big “mystery” by the end.

Reese and Wernick’s script plays with big ideas only to cop out at the end and have the bad guy espouse a trite, and frankly, dumb monologue about free will and we can force people to follow orders for the better of the good. It’s nothing we haven’t heard or seen before and Hemsworth’s diatribe at the end barely registers in the top thousand of similar villain monologues. 

This is a shame because the best thing about Spiderhead, aside from Claudio Miranda’s camerawork, is Hemsworth as Abnesti. In a movie of solid performances, Hemsworth seems to be the only one having fun with his. Granted this is partly due to the script, but that’s just the problem, the characters aren’t that interesting, and the narrative puzzle is not that complicated. The only one who seems to understand this is Hemsworth whose “I’m not your boss, I’m your friend” persona perfectly telegraphs the type of vain selfish man he really is.

The only other performance that sticks out is a young woman who plays Heather (Tess Haubrich), an inmate at Spiderhead. She stands out because Haubrich has a vibrant screen presence and Kosinski and the script don’t tediously try and tell us about her. She’s a mystery that we are allowed to ponder.

Meanwhile, Teller and Smollet are left with a couple of cardboard cut-outs as they try and solve the not so mystery of Spiderhead facility and of Abnesti. Teller’s Jeff isn’t the brightest as it takes him most of the movie what we the audience already know, which is that Abnesti IS the boss. Even though I liked Teller’s and Smollett’s chemistry their relationship takes weird leaps that feel disjointed.

Jeff is attracted to Lizzy but he still has feelings for his wife on the outside. This itself is part of another not-so-clever mystery that we discover when Kosinski reveals to us that he hasn’t been playing fair with us. Jeff pulls away but soon realizes he loves Lizzy and the two start up a relationship. Sadly, these two are much too interesting and fun to watch together for Konsinki to allow Spiderhead to spend too much time on it.

Worse is the soundtrack, pop-music set to eerie moments, meant to be ironic but merely comes off as tired and stale. Miranda’s lensing of Spiderhead is so gorgeous and pristine that it’s a shame the frames are filled with such nothing characters and the soundtrack is populated with songs you’d expect to hear in a movie about mood-altering drugs. 

Miranda’s camera accentuates Jeremy Hindle’s production design. The minimalist aspect of Spiderhead help achieves the one thing the movie manages to excel at, mood through visuals. Had Spiderhead been a silent movie it may have well been better. Miranda emphasizes Hindle’s use of space in the facility. While it’s true there are no bars in the Spiderhead building, Hindle and Miranda cleverly show how architecture can be just as imprisoning.

Kosinski does a wonderful job of conveying this and of maintaining mood. But it’s all empty posturing that adds up to nothing, least of all entertaining. If not for Hemsworth, Spiderhead would be filled wall to wall with serviceable performances by talented actors and not else much of interest.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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  • Jeremiah

    Jeremiah lives in Los Angeles and divides his time between living in a movie theatre and writing mysteries. There might also be some ghostbusting being performed in his spare time.

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