In the first scene of “Spiderhead,” an inmate is told a series of jokes by a person sitting one sheet of glass away from him. He laughs more and more, almost as if a drug was being administered to him along with the comedy. But then the man tells the inmate about genocide and murder, thinking the reaction will change from hysteria to anger and resentment instantly. But it doesn’t happen. He keeps laughing, because he is indeed, very much so on drugs.
The man telling the jokes and delivering the rough history lesson is Steve Abnesti, a pharmaceutically obsessed visionary. The prison release program allows him to test unapproved, mind-altering drugs with the promise of a loose atmosphere and shortened sentence. All is fun and games until one of the subjects (Miles Teller) starts to unravel the inevitable truth about the nature of Abnesti’s enterprise-which is conveniently stored away next to an exotic island in the middle of an ocean-and what the real goal of the “trials” are.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski, currently riding the high wave of “Top Gun Maverick,” this movie dips its feet into multiple genres without feeling overworked or pressed for purpose. The idea here is showing off all the current to soon-to-be attainable drugs that are currently circulating through the world, altering and intensifying lives from all sorts of backgrounds. Armed with sharp screenwriters in Rhett Reece and Paul Wernick (“DEADPOOL”), Kosinski isn’t out to kickstart a timely war on drugs anthem. He merely wants to entertain and maybe get you thinking about the rupturing marriage between drug and human.
Played with a Joker delight by Chris Hemsworth, Abnesti isn’t wholly evil, but his morals are teetering on the edge of “over the top.” Working with an assistant who increasingly sees the harm in his boss’s ways, Verlaine (Mark Peguio), Abnesti is willing to put two people in the room who do not like each other and administer a drug that turns a person’s mood inside out. Is he willing to overlook suicide and murder? Teller’s Jeff, imprisoned for a crime that the audience finds more breadcrumbs about as the movie ages, is going to find out.
Teller, who has now made three movies with Kosinski, is always watchable on screen. He could be playing a boxer on the comeback trail (“Bleed For This”) or a young fighter pilot carrying old scars (“Maverick”), and he transcends the character’s pain. He burst onto the scene with “Whiplash” and “The Spectacular Now,” a pair of movies that focused on someone trying to grow while climbing over their genetic pratfalls. Jeff shares more than a few things in common with the protagonist in the latter film: young men who make normal mistakes hit harder by compounding the human element located inside the poor decision department. He breathes extra life into Jeff, and it keeps the whole film moving smoothly.
Hemsworth likes to play with his cinema persona, aka how fans perceive him and his role choices. Seeing him go from Marvel Mega God in the trailer for next month’s “Thor: Love and Thunder” to this twisted drug Godfather wannabe with the perfect haircut and stylish dress code is a delight. He really can do it all. Add a much-needed sense of humor to his Odinson refugee, or play the heroic soldier in “12 Strong” and “Extracted.” But it’s the extra spice and charisma that he brings to the table that creates that perfect cocktail of leading man persuasion.
You don’t know what to think of his Abnesti at first, a brainy, speed-talking Steve Jobs on steroids renegade who thinks his company “crossed the line, many lines ago.” Seeing the screen hero and idol break bad AND goofy at the same time in “Spiderhead” is the best thing about this movie. We need more of unhinged Hemsworth, the kind of power hungry soul whose leaking morality is a danger to everyone but the viewer.
It’s that unique sense of humor that bolsters the Netflix original film, which was originally called Escape from Spiderhead (the name of the short story the script is based on). The final, official title works just fine, giving you everything a filmgoer glancing at the menu for something different needs to see. Something a little scary, a little berserk, and very self-aware. Believe it. This movie works on its own level, operating on a platform that isn’t looking for awards or adoration. Just your attention.
It doesn’t wish to preach about the current war or any past wars, only show you what powerful drugs can do to the mind–a playful notification that the worst could still be on its way with pharmaceuticals.
Final Thoughts: The kickass soundtrack is a character in itself, and Jurnee Smollett burns up the screen each time she is on it playing a fellow prisoner falling for Jeff and living with her own guilty past. Wait for the scene where two people sit in a room together with no intent or thought about having sex with one another. She doesn’t find him attractive, but he thinks she is pretty. After they “drip on,” instant animalistic sex breaks out. What do you think Abnesti is doing? Laughing his ass off and high-fiving his teammate.
I spent much of “Spiderhead” laughing. Maybe that was the intent. Maybe not. I liked what I was served.