Directed by: Joseph Kosinski
Premise: Based on a short story by George Saunders. Convicts are held in a research facility where they are subject to pharmaceutical experiments that radically alter their emotions. The apparently ideal conditions belie a sinister agenda.
What Works: Many of the best science fiction films have a compelling idea and Spiderhead presents an engaging premise. Convicts have agreed to be pharmaceutical guinea pigs at a facility in which their emotions are regulated by a drug dispenser attached to their lower back. The filmmakers add an additional complication to this conceit. Borrowing from the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Stanley Milgram obedience experiment (dramatized in the eponymous film and the 2015 picture Experimenter, respectively), the patients are asked to administer an extremely painful drug to their fellow inmates. The filmmakers smartly interlace the effects of the medication with these people’s lived interactions in a way that creates some uncertainty about which emotional reactions are genuine and which are chemically induced. Spiderhead also features interesting production design. The interior spaces recall the sets of Logan’s Run and THX-1138 and the use of space and color is simultaneously domestic and coldly clinical. The picture benefits from its sense of humor. The drugs incite asynchronous emotional reactions which are sometimes bleakly comedic. Chris Hemsworth stars as the lead researcher and he is dastardly but also very funny. The film co-stars Jurnee Smollett as one of the patients. While she doesn’t get opportunities for humor she is extremely watchable and her backstory makes her one of the most compelling characters in the film.
What Doesn’t: Spiderhead has some interesting ideas but it’s clear the filmmakers didn’t think them through. The premise has a number of practical problems. The device containing the medication is implanted in the characters’ lower back; this would cause all sorts of problems especially when they sit or sleep. The film also imagines the characters’ emotions turning on and off like a light switch. Drug induced emotional states don’t work that way and there’s no after effects to the medication. The filmmakers entertain the scenarios of the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram obedience experiment but they also ignore the outcomes of those studies. Both affirmed a disposition to cruelty and authoritarianism that the characters of Spiderhead resist. The film also suffers from incomplete character arcs and an underdeveloped redemption theme. These problems come to a head in the ending. The conclusion feels tagged on and pat. It oversimplifies a complex situation and is very unsatisfying.
DVD extras: Available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Spiderhead has some interesting ideas and good performances and it’s entertaining enough to hold the viewer’s attention. But the film is superficial in both its conception and its drama.
Episode: #907 (June 26, 2022)