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Spiderhead Review: A Generic Prescription

EDITORS' RATING: 3/10
Pros
  • The film has some ambitious ideas around the drug industry.
Cons
  • Hemsworth is miscast and ineffective.
  • Kosinski disappoints in his direction.
  • The film is rarely brainy, too often basic.

Everybody has had one at some point in their lives: the friend who thinks big when one substance or another is impacting their mindset, but can't be bothered to get up off the couch and make any of it happen. Joseph Kosinski's "Spiderhead," unfortunately, is the cinematic equivalent of that friend — big ideas, but too lazy to execute them.

Imagine you're at a party, and it's getting late. Your friend corners you and starts rambling on about imaginary drugs. What if there was something called Verbulance that made you more verbose, erudite, and precise in your manner of speaking? What if you could take Laffodil to laugh more easily? What if an evil pharmaceutical company was administering these drugs and others, deceptively and sometimes against the will of the user? What if you were secretly being given drugs to make you comply against your will? What if these drugs were being tested on prison inmates?! The next morning, you and your friend might wake up and laugh about such ambitious, perhaps paranoid, off-the-wall ideas. 

"Spiderhead" spends an hour and 46 minutes playing them through, but without any desire to give precious background on the how and why of its story, give understandable reactions to its characters, or have the bodies of humans react in recognizable, plausible ways. The end result is a waste of stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, and Jurnee Smollett, and a film whose side effects may include nausea, headaches, and extreme disappointment.

The flick begins sometime in the not-so-distant future, as prison privatization and Silicon Valley ubiquity have seemingly converged to form "Spiderhead," a quasi-secretive facility where "inmates" have traded traditional incarceration for the perks of Apple employees (free snacks, videogames in the breakroom, unfettered access throughout the building). But there is one major catch: each is equipped with a pancake-sized pack that contains various research chemicals which can be administered with a slick smartphone app.

Presiding over this fiefdom is affable-if-awkward Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), a prison equivalent of the school administrator who boasts about putting the "pal" in principal. Steve enjoys blasting yacht rock music throughout the facility, insisting that his hands are tied when it comes to tough decisions (higher-ups are supposedly calling the shots), and occasionally breaking Tony Montana's cardinal rule and getting high on his own supply. Also in Steve's corner is Mark Verlaine (Mark Paguio), a mousy lab assistant who endures the brunt of his tirades.

Whatever floats your boat

Among the inmates are Jeff (Teller), a moody guinea pig whose daily sessions have him reflecting on all he's done wrong and/or having sex with various partners as Steve tests out what is essentially Love Potion Number 9, 2.0; Heather (Tess Haubrich), a troubled young woman; Lizzy (Smollett), another inmate who Jeff frequently flirts with; and other individuals as Etch-A-Sketchy as the kiddie toy Jeff ornately doodles with every night.

As the inmates enjoy puzzles in the break room, hours d'oeuvres, and the ability to even walk in on Steve unannounced, the quasi-warden brings his inmates one or two at a time into his spartan, Apple Store-like observation room. He and Mark always ask for permission to turn on the drip; the inmates almost always give it. As the movie progresses, he seems to be checking off a laundry list of drugs with laughably simple names — particularly Darkenfloxx, which not only brings out a person's dark side but sounds like it was named by the Swedish Chef.

Revelations come fast and furious as Jeff peels back the onion that is Steve's tech entrepreneur visage; as it turns out, this guy is the Elizabeth Holmes of jail wardens, faking it until he can make it and manipulating the inmates to fit his unscientific methods. "Spiderhead" wants to be "A Clockwork Orange"-meets-"Ex Machina," but doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph. It is all premise, no point.

No matter how state-of-the-art these ominous vials may be, nothing can be absorbed, take effect, and then turned off in the matter of seconds this film portrays the deployment of its drugs; in essence, the inmates are depicted as being like robots, with on/off switches that can start or stop them instantaneously. Give someone Darkenfloxx, and within seconds they are self-destructive; lingering side effects and the mental fallout of their actions are barely addressed. Every night, it seems, everyone gathers for frivolity and all is forgotten.

On top of that, "Spiderhead" digs itself an inescapable hole by making its two lead "heroes" not falsely accused or unfairly judged, or even perpetrators of victimless crimes, but flat-out murderers. The film expects you to root for someone who killed his two friends while drunk driving (depicted repeatedly through flashbacks), and someone else who was responsible for the death of her young daughter. Great films can make you sympathetic towards an antihero like Sonny from "Dog Day Afternoon," Will Munny in "Unforgiven," or Leon in "The Professional." Despite the presence of muscle-bound Hemsworth, this film can't even begin to lift that weight.

Forest for the trees

Are any great truths explored during the experiments, like the way "Clockwork" made the viewer contemplate the essence of free will when employed to choose violence? Not really. Is there anything at play here beyond the "What if..." potentials of these drugs? Nope. In a laughably brief instant near the end of the film, Hemsworth leaves a room, drops his keys, Teller picks them up, opens a cabinet, opens a journal stuffed with random papers, finds exactly the paper he needs to ascertain that Hemsworth owns the company — and a Bingo card that the vials of drugs are apparently named after! — then stuffs it all back before Hemsworth returns a moment later. 

"Spiderhead" is the sort of film that values your intelligence so little that it half-heartedly belches out that sequence of events and expects it to explain ... well, pretty much everything. And if you think all this supposedly high-minded chitchat is going to end in anything more clever than Hemsworth and Teller in a fistfight, perhaps you need to dial down your own dosage of Gullibilityfloxx.

Hemsworth, try as he might while dancing and playing vulnerable, continues a sad streak of unfortunate "non-Thor" career decisions that don't offer much hope beyond the MCU. Teller doesn't seem to know whether he's supposed to be good, bad or full-on automaton, and Smollett doesn't fare much better as a love interest who rarely rises above a modern-day manic pixie dream girl. "Spiderhead" ultimately plays like something Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," "In Time") would jot down on a cocktail napkin and then throw away; it's a sci-fi wannabe mind-bender, uninterested in putting in the work to seriously explore its own ideas.