DUBAI: Netflix’s new sci-fi thriller is based on a short story by award-winning author George Saunders that was published in The New Yorker — normally a guarantee of literary quality. It’s odd, then, that the film is stocked with uninspiring dialogue and a narrative that seems light on substance.
Perhaps the key is that the original material was a short story. By stretching it into a feature film, the screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the pair responsible for the “Deadpool” movies) have failed to provide sufficient quality material to cover the extra yardage.
The “Deadpool” link is telling. Reese and Wernick attempt to slip a similar knowing humor into “Spiderhead.” It doesn’t work nearly as well with Chris Hemsworth in the lead instead of Ryan Reynolds.
Hemsworth plays the genius rogue scientist and megalomaniac Steve Abnesti, who has set up the titular state-of-the-art island penitentiary. It’s his vision of a new kind of prison system, one in which the inmates can roam around without supervision and have their own comfortable rooms. In return, they have agreed to be the subjects of Abnesti’s drug tests — drugs which alter their emotions and perceptions, including the ‘love drug’ N-40, “Laffodil,” which makes everything seem funny, and the sinister “Darkenfloxx,” which induces pain — both physical and mental.
Hemsworth’s charisma is undeniable, but he’s out of his depth here, acting-wise, failing to convince when asked to display the full gamut of emotions supposedly induced by his inventions.
Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, as inmates Jeff and Lizzy respectively, fare much better, giving the movie an emotional heart that it doesn’t really deserve and doing far more with the by-the-numbers script than can reasonably be expected. They make “Spiderhead” mostly watchable through their convincing portrayals of two damaged people trying to find some light in the darkness of their guilt.
Director Joseph Kosinski does a mixed job. He manages to pace things well — balancing dialogue-heavy ‘science’ scenes and bursts of violent action with panache — but seems unsure exactly what he’s trying to deliver. The film’s light touches (the pink titles; the upbeat pop music; Hemsworth’s jaunty dancing) jar uncomfortably with its darker themes (the dehumanization of criminals; the ethics of altering people’s minds), and the result is unsettling. But not in an interesting way — just in a ‘Have I just wasted 107 minutes of my life?’ way.
This could have been an intriguingly dark movie. Instead, it’s another dystopian sci-fi film that’s not nearly as clever as it thinks it is.