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Film Review: Spiderhead

21 June 22 words: George Ramsey

Based on the 2015 short story by George Saunders, the Netflix film Spiderhead is a pillow-fisted disappointment...

DirectorJoseph Kosinski
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett
Running time: 107 minutes

As a fan of George Saunders’ work, I was over the moon when I learned that his short story Escape from Spiderhead had been made into a film. The premise is recreated faithfully but while Escape from Spiderhead thrives in the challenging and the uncomfortable, the Netflix adaptation builds up to a tragic climax only to bottle out at the last minute.

Perhaps the worst part is that Spiderhead starts off so promisingly, with the first twenty minutes being an incredibly exciting introduction to the premise set to a cracking, unnerving soundtrack. The premise of Spiderhead is incredibly strong and the film is great as it establishes itself: Spiderhead is an institute where prisoners have applied to be voluntary test subjects for emotion-inducing drugs that make you laugh or love uncontrollably. From there, things begin to take a darker turn. 

On closer inspection though, the introductory song selection is revealed to be disappointingly obvious. The Logical Song by Supertramp is a song about being brainwashed, while What a Fool Believes by the Doobie Brothers and She Blinded Me With Science by Thomas Dolby are both used with painful literality, and you almost feel like you were tricked into bopping along. As it becomes clear that the strength of the premise lies in the fact that screenplay writers were not involved, this highlights the duality of the film, where the strongest aspects all trace their roots back to the source material, while the weakest almost invariably are new additions.

This isn’t to say that the film is completely without merit. Chris Hemsworth’s inadvertent recreation of The Simpsons friendly boss/evil mastermind, Hank Scorpio is entertaining, if not convincing, and you’d be forgiven for wondering why he was chosen for the role in the first place.

If you want a thought-provoking critique of pharmaceutical companies, then you’re probably best waiting for Black Mirror to do an episode on it

However, the main problem with the film is the conflict between the original short story and the film’s plot. While the original premise is a dystopian thought exercise, it’s quite apparent that the screenplay writers wanted Spiderhead to be a mystery with a happy ending. Both of these aspects are handled incompetently. It frequently gives the audience key information long before the protagonist, which robs the tension from scenes in which a discovery is made. 

Forcing the audience to wait for the protagonist to play catch-up creates a sense of impatience in the audience which jars horribly with the rushed ending, of which, the last five minutes are the most offensive. In the surreal closing moments, the viewer is given tonal whiplash as the sinister and slowly revealed plot devolves into a slapstick action scene with an incongruent, pillow-fisted resolution.

If you want a thought-provoking critique of pharmaceutical companies and the far reaching effects of their products which taps into real life worries in a post-Covid world, then you’re probably best waiting for Black Mirror to do an episode on it. Alternatively, you could just read the original story.

Did you know? The film was shot in Queensland, Australia, which producer Tommy Harper said was ideal for filming a variety of different shots. “In California you can have a lot of different locations in one place, and I feel like Queensland in particular is just like that,” he explained. “You could be in the country and feel like you’re in Texas, or you can be in a rainforest and feel like you’re in Hawaii.”

Spiderhead is now available on Netflix

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