Tuesday, June 21, 2022


The animating tension of Spiderhead is in the friction between its surface and its undertow. The setting is an ocean front compound on a remote island, a research facility that looks more like a high-tech resort, with lots of wide-open communal spaces and clean architectural lines. It is photographed in bright, clean frames with lots of light and soft colors. The furniture looks like upscale Ikea, and the diegetic soundtrack is slick with all the smoothest jams of 80s pop rock. Ah, but the content and intent of this place is menacing, chilled with moral quandaries, and driving toward a bad end that’s inevitable from frame one. Here prisoners (like Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett) have volunteered to live as test subjects for a devious billionaire (Chris Hemsworth) who chummily lives among them. He’s fitted them with chemical packs on their backs which he operates from an app on his phone, able to dial up emotional states and biological urges with the flick of his finger. He runs them through tests—can he make them laugh at tragedy, find industrial waste beautiful, want to make love to an unappealing partner? This can’t be going anywhere good.

The film carefully keeps the prisoners’ crimes as backstory to be doled out later, the better to front-load their inherent humanity. We see who they are without the distraction of that emotional scale-tipping, and when we hear their tragic circumstances and decisions that sent them here, we can all the more clearly understand that no one deserves to be forced into this system. It’s torture disguised as comfort. They’re threatened with return to a normal penitentiary if they don’t consent to each new dose. Some are starting to suspect they’d be better off leaving. That they stay is credit to their wickedly charming warden, an athlesuire-wearing faux-chummy tech bro who talks to them like buddies and co-conspirators more than prisoners. He makes them feel a part of the team, like they’re doing valuable work. Why, he’s wearing a pack of chemicals, too. Hemsworth, projecting a whirling confidence and slick shrewdness, plays him as a perfectly slimy brand of modern billionaire. As suspicions about this guy and his project grow, Teller dials into a stoic sorrow, slowly crumbling under the pressures of being made to feel against his will. He’s trying to drown out the sorrows of his past, unable and unwilling to forgive himself for what he’s done. Smollett, too, is keeping her distance from who she was, forging new connections in this gilded prison. (They’re warm to each other, humanity among the inhumane.) They thought they were doing good. But at what cost?

That this simple wire-frame plotting, courtesy Zombieland and Deadpool screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick exercising unusual restraint adapting a heady George Saunders short story, plays out so effectively is the work of director Joseph Kosinski. (A fluke of pandemic scheduling means the film he shot over three years ago, Top Gun: Maverick, is ruling the summer box office while this project, made mid-pandemic, is ready for release mere weeks later. What a time to demonstrate his range!) He gives the film a restrained style—as slick as the tunes echoing from the compound’s speakers—gliding along and pinned down in surveillance angles doubling or tripling the views from the control room. He lets his characters squirm, lab rats stuck in a maze, while we can pick out the whole picture well in advance. He’s expert at building out the architecture of a plot in conjunction with its setting, housing the emotional appeals in handsome surfaces. Think the vast digital loneliness of Tron Legacy, the windswept empty landscapes of Oblivion, the crackling Arizona wilds' fire dangers of Only the Brave, the high-velocity aerial combat and cozy homefront of Top Gun 2. Here it’s the deceptive comfort wrapped around total heartlessness, victims cooped up and slowly driven mad. It keys into our reflective understanding that the government will willingly abdicate its responsibilities to care for citizens it sees as disposable. If it can privatize prisons, why not emotions and biological urges, too? Here’s a fun little thriller that sees that obviously bad idea to its logical conclusion.

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