Consider this premise: an alternative prison run by a genius billionaire aims to reform rather than merely incarcerating inmates, taking in hardened criminals and giving them a chance for redemption, all by means of experimental pharmaceuticals. Do even the most fallen of men deserve a second chance? Can we engineer our way to goodness? Can medicine make us moral? Or are there parts of the human soul that go beyond the mechanisms of chemistry?
If you think that story is too intriguing to fail, you’d be dead wrong. Netflix and The New Yorker combined their resources to produce a stunningly abysmal two-hour slog based on the most promising of storylines.
The film, “Spiderhead,” directed by Joseph Kosinski and released last month, retells and somewhat recasts its source material, the short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by the acclaimed George Saunders, first published in The New Yorker in 2010.
The producers, writers, and director had a would-be blockbuster handed to them on a silver platter in the form of Saunders’ thought-provoking satire. It was an underhand, slow-pitch softball; all they had to do was swing. They didn’t.
“Spiderhead” introduces Jeff (Miles Teller), by all appearances a patient at a healthcare facility. He receives medicine through a remotely controlled injection system called a Mobi-Pak, hooked directly into his body like an insulin pump.
It soon becomes clear that this facility is an experimental prison in which Jeff and his fellow inmates enjoy considerable freedoms—open doors, meals, fish tanks, espresso machines, sexual liaisons, etc.—in exchange for consenting to receive experimental mind-altering drugs via their Mobi-Paks. Ultimately, they hope to be reformed and released despite the gravity of their crimes and the length of their sentences. If Joe Rogan designed a prison, this would be it.
There is no overarching, faceless nemesis like Huxley’s World State or Orwell’s Big Brother; rather, there’s a man behind the curtain in “Spiderhead,” one Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a would-be Silicon Valley bro with half-baked hopes for making the world a better place.
His facility is called Spiderhead because the various wards of the prison branch from its Control Center like the legs of a spider. Abnesti, who insists inmates call him Steve, runs his experiments from the Center while sipping coffee, clad in fitted jeans, a T-shirt, and a blazer, like a well-bred millennial.
It wasn’t clear if it was the writing or Hemsworth’s acting that never brought the Abnesti character to the level of a villain. He never appears dark, brooding, or maniacal. Despite his research goals and profit motives, he never even really becomes Machiavellian.
A few generations ago, in the heyday of Hollywood’s studio system, hundreds of movies were produced haphazardly. If someone somewhere needed a project to work on, just dust off an unused script, find a contracted director with some downtime, scrape together a few actors, and throw them all together in an unused studio lot.
While this may have worked for Hollywood of old (films like “Casablanca” were in part hobbled together in such ways), “Spiderhead” has all the look of a such a movie-making Frankenstein and nothing to give it life. Everything about it looks hasty, from its production, to its scenes, to its acting.
Occasional lapses in directorial judgment can be forgiven, but with “Spiderhead,” it seems Kosinski wasn’t even trying. The Mobi-Paks looked like a GameCube affixed to the inmates’ lower spines, and not a scene went by without producing wonder at how on earth these prisoners sleep in a bed or sit in a chair with pieces of Tupperware protruding from their tailbones.
Befuddled by the nuance of Saunders’ story, the writers prop the movie up on clichés. In the end, Abnesti dies in a fireball, Jeff wins the girl, and the two sail off into the sunset together.
The flat laziness of this Hollywood finale stands out all the more against Saunders’ original. In his telling, Jeff commits suicide rather than administer a pain-inducing drug to another inmate. In the end, Jeff explains from beyond the grave that he’s finally happy because now he can never commit murder again. The movie doesn’t even gesture towards such poignancy and dark satire. The film carries all of the externals of Saunders’ story and none of its heart.
Surprisingly enough, Kosinski and Teller also teamed up on this year’s well-received “Top Gun” sequel. If there’s a takeaway here, it’s this: spend your money on a worthwhile summer blockbuster that your grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be watching, not some director’s afterthought of a project. And before you do that, read George Saunders.