Netflix and The New Yorker have combined their vast resources to produce a stunningly abysmal two-hour slog based on George Saunders’ short story titled “Escape from Spiderhead.” The story’s film adaptation, merely titled “Spiderhead,” directed by Joseph Kosinski and released last month, retells and somewhat recasts its source material. Nevertheless, the creative team had a would-be blockbuster handed to them on a silver platter in the form of Saunders’ thought-provoking satire, and they screwed it up.
“Spiderhead” introduces Jeff (Miles Teller) as a patient at a health care 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, in fact, an experimental prison in which Jeff and his fellow inmates enjoy considerable freedoms — open doors, meals, fish tanks, espresso machines, sexual liaisons, and more — 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.
There is no overarching, faceless nemesis like Huxley’s World State or Orwell’s Big Brother. Rather there’s a man behind the curtain named Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a would-be Silicon Valley tech-bro with his own half-baked hopes for making the world a better place.
Abnesti’s 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 that his inmates call him Steve, runs his experiments from the control center while sipping coffee, clad in fitted jeans, a T-shirt, and a blazer, like a well-bred millennial.
Either Hemsworth’s acting or the film’s subpar writing leave the audience wanting more from Abnesti, he never quite reaches villain status as he isn’t a particularly interesting antagonist. Despite having nefarious research goals and profit motives, Abnesti’s character is not compelling.
Years ago, in the heyday of Hollywood’s studio system, hundreds of movies were produced haphazardly. If someone somewhere needed a project to work on, someone would 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. “Spiderhead” feels like one such film; everything about it looks hasty.
Occasional lapses in directorial judgment can be forgiven, but it seems like Kosinski wasn’t even trying. The Mobi-Paks looked like a GameCube affixed to the inmates’ lower spines, and not a scene went by in which disbelief was reliably suspended. Any semblance of dystopian gravity is ruined by the soundtrack, which attempts to unsettle you with the likes of the Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates, and the opening and closing credits feature a cartoonish pink font.
Befuddled by the nuance of Saunders’ story, the writers prop the movie up on clichés. Abnesti dies in a fireball, Jeff gets the girl, and the two lovingly sail off into the sunset together at the end.
The flat laziness of this finale stands is vastly different than Saunders’ original ending. In his telling, Jeff commits suicide rather than administer a pain-inducing drug to another inmate as Jeff explains from beyond the grave that he’s finally happy because now he can never again commit murder. The movie doesn’t even gesture toward such poignancy; it carries all of the externals of Saunders’ story and none of its heart.
Max Bindernagel is an English teacher. He writes from Washington, DC.
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