In the new Netflix sci-fi drama Spiderhead, Chris Hemsworth has to ask permission before he drugs someone. The test subjects are prisoners with almost no rights, and the creepiness with which Hemsworth asks “Drip on? Acknowledge?” is chilling. This guy is no Thor or George Kirk.
The world of Spiderhead is barely science fiction, closer to the present tense of a tech drama like Severance. And although Spiderhead might be flying under the radar, it’s stacked with talent and intelligence, making it an unskippable psychological sci-fi thriller.
First published in The New Yorker in 2010 as “Escape From Spiderhead,” this George Saunders-penned story was also included in his bestselling 2013 collection Tenth of December. If you’ve slept on Saunders, his ability to spin sinister and sometimes comically dark alternate worlds is unparalleled. If Kurt Vonnegut’s humor were fused with the horror of Stephen King and the tragic beauty of Ray Bradbury, you’d have something close to the uncomfortable vision of Saunders’ best fiction. He’s best known for his 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, about Abraham Lincoln’s time in the Buddhist space between death and rebirth, but for the literary sci-fi fans, Saunders’ short stories are a revelation.
Spiderhead uses its artistic and literary roots to demonstrate its understated brilliance. Unlike many episodes of Black Mirror, where a kind of cautionary tech panic is lurking beneath the surface, Spiderhead’s heart-wrenching story isn’t about how technology has corrupted or dehumanized us. Instead, it’s a much stranger meditation on the nature and context of emotions. Yes, there are sci-fi drugs. And yes, there’s a massive and sleazy human experiment. But even though Chris Hemsworth’s character seems like the mad scientist at the center of it all, his character is much more interesting than an off-the-rack cliché.
As Steve Abnesti, Hemsworth is clear-eyed and full of charm. He’s also an emotional butcher, harvesting whatever data he needs even if it destroys people’s lives. Fans of Ex Machina might recall Oscar Isaac’s frightening performance as akin to what Hemsworth is doing here. Hemsworth is scarier because he almost never cracks. It’s in his measured calmness that he exudes terror.
Faithful to the short story, Abenesti is in charge of experiments at a prison that has a control room called “the Spiderhead.” Our audience surrogate is Jeff (Miles Teller), a remorseful inmate who seems to want to please his captor but also desperately wants to escape. The story of Jeff is also, refreshingly, not just about twists and turns.
Again, unlike Black Mirror or Severance, you’re not just watching to discover some secret. Yes, there are some big twists, but the reason Spiderhead is good isn’t that it’s shocking or that it pulls you along into some kind of dark mystery. Instead, the movie gives you a premise that’s unfolding in the present tense and urges you to care about what happens next.
It may sound odd to praise a movie for simply focusing on its story. But Spiderhead stands apart from an easy comparison to Black Mirror simply because it doesn’t just rely on a dark twist or a bleak statement about the way people are horrible. Directed by Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Top Gun: Maverick), with a screenplay from Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, what makes Spiderhead so compelling is the fact that hope exists amid all its darkness.
In another universe, Netflix could have expanded Spiderhead into a Severance-style TV series, complete with new characters, backstories, and a variety of twists. But, in a world of sci-fi dramas that are far too long, it’s amazing that Spiderhead exists. It’s a modest sci-fi tragedy that honors its source material brilliantly. Sometimes, one movie about one idea is all you need.
Spiderhead hits Netflix on June 17, 2022.