Review: 'Spiderhead' Proves That a Good Concept Doesn't Make a Great Film

by Derek Deskins

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 17, 2022

'Spiderhead'
'Spiderhead'  (Source:Netflix)

With the unwieldy glut of streaming options, finding a good movie to watch can be tricky. As a person that consumes a large amount of this content, I've learned some tricks that help guide my choices. My most prevailing trick is largely adapted from the days of direct-to-video movies. At its most basic: If a movie has big name stars, what appears to be a decent budget, and you've never heard of it, it's probably not going to be great.

Netflix's latest, "Spiderhead" comes from director Joseph Kosinski (who currently has the biggest movie at the box office, "Top Gun: Maverick"), Miles Teller (one of the stars of "Top Gun: Maverick"), the god of thunder, the writers of "Zombieland" and "Deadpool," and a budget that is reportedly north of $100 million.

Oh, you hadn't heard of it? That's because even Netflix knows it's not very good.

In the near future, there exists an alternative to traditional jail for a select few: They get the opportunity at detainment with luxuries. The cost? They must participate in a series of drug trials. When the trial of a new love drug goes south, inmate Jeff must decide if he'll continue to be a willing participant, or finally stand up and rebel.

The general concept of "Spiderhead" is fairly simple: Criminals are used as lab rats. That simplicity is by design, as the source material is the short story "Escape from Spiderhead," by George Saunders. The original story is exceptionally streamlined, and develops its characters organically through the story. It is concerned with Jeff and his experience, his feelings. But as it changed from a short story to a feature film, the filmmakers chose to fluff it up. Unfortunately, all they accomplished was making it longer, not deeper or more complex.

The film's main character is Miles Teller's Jeff, and yet it feels like Chris Hemsworth's movie from start to finish. The screenplay gets bored with Jeff's life almost instantaneously and Miles Teller does little to argue otherwise. Jeff is an everyman, an audience surrogate, but without anything to make him interesting. Juxtaposed against Hemsworth's cartoonish Abnesti, it often feels like the two received completely different scripts.

Hemsworth's performance recalls his work as cult leader Billy Lee in "Bad Times at the El Royale." As Lee, Hemsworth swung for the fences: All charm, simmering rage, and a dash of dance. As Abnesti, he reigns it in slightly, but largely delivers a thematically similar performance. In "El Royale," all of the actors were going big, so Hemsworth's Lee worked. In "Spiderhead" no one else shows up like Hemsworth, making his choices jarring and ill-fitting.

The real crime of "Spiderhead" is that the pieces that it adds to Saunders' original story only serve to cheapen its themes. A love interest for Jeff, a tragic backstory, or Abnesti's penchant for trying his own drugs don't add anything of value to the story or the characters. We don't come to understand the characters more deeply or care for them in any kind of noticeable way; instead, it just takes up space, padding the film's runtime to its own detriment.

In all, there is little in "Spiderhead" to find worth noting. The set design is vaguely futuristic, but in that cold and detached style that seems like little more than some modern coastal monstrosity of the hyper-rich. Even director Joseph Kosinski's eye for shot composition is left by the wayside, with much of the film looking uninspired and mediocre. And the less said of the film's ending, a betrayal of its source text, the better. "Spiderhead" is proof that a good concept does not necessarily make for a great film, and that sometimes more is actually less.

"Spiderhead" is streaming on Netflix.