Classification: R; 106 minutes
Directed by Joseph Kosinski
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on the short story by George Saunders
Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett
Streaming on Netflix starting June 17
A great soundtrack can jolt the most middling movie to life. Some filmmakers have even cultivated an entire career not around visual aesthetics, but fist-pumping needle-drops (hi, Craig “I, Tonya” Gillespie). Slap some Hall & Oates and Roxy Music on there, and, bam! You’ve got yourself a movie that feels thrillingly, head-boppingly alive, even if the rest of the action is the cinematic equivalent of white noise. This is, as you might have guessed, a long way of saying that the new psychological thriller Spiderhead deserves a listen, if not a watch.
I’ll back up for a moment and admit that director Joseph Kosinski’s new film isn’t lacking in the visual department. While grounded in ways both literal and metaphorical compared with the filmmaker’s other big summer 2022 movie (Top Gun: Maverick), Kosinski is clearly enjoying himself as he tells a prison-set story obsessed with how tiny bodies fill massive chasms of empty space. His film’s title penitentiary, a hulking slab of brutalist concrete walls and neon-lit dormitories located on some unnamed tropical island, is a striking creation – half jail, half gallery dedicated to the fine art of isolation. It is just that Kosinski and his screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the Deadpool films) neglect to fill Spiderhead (the movie and the prison) with any characters or drama of much interest.
Adapting George Saunders’s 2010 short story Escape from Spiderhead (which was published in The New Yorker, resulting in the first feature film produced by Condé Nast Entertainment – and likely opening up a whole can of intellectual-property worms for magazine contributors), Reese and Wernick’s script focuses on a group of inmates who have voluntarily signed up to serve their sentences at the futuristic compound. It is a sleek facility with all the comforts of home – ample food, arcade games, and a sound system pumping out the biggest earworms of the 1980s – but with the cost of participating in daily pharmaceutical experiments overseen by warden/chief scientist Steve (Chris Hemsworth).
It is initially unclear why Steve is injecting his prisoners, including the photogenic would-be lovebirds Jeff (Miles Teller) and Rachel (Jurnee Smollett), with drugs that make them laugh uncontrollably, lust after one another or lash out in violent rage. But then five minutes pass and any audience with a base understanding of nefarious movie-villain scheming can figure out what is actually going on here, leaving not much else to chew on for the film’s remaining 100 minutes. Except, well, all those delicious soundtrack choices.
Kosinski kicks things off with Supertramp’s The Logical Song playing over hot-pink faux-retro opening-credit title cards, which for a moment promise a film far more live-wire than what is to come. But while the music pushes the film along, it is ultimately auditory window-dressing for a movie that doesn’t have much new to add to Saunders’s favoured themes of societal despair and the emptiness of modern labour.
Perhaps sensing that the film needs all the toe-tapping energy it can get, Spiderhead’s cast make the most out of their thin material. Teller, partnering with Kosinski for the third time (after 2017′s Only the Brave and Maverick), finds genuine torment in Jeff, who is repeatedly forced to make choices he would rather walk away from, mirroring how much he attempts to distance himself from the events that landed him in Spiderhead in the first place. And Hemsworth is having an absolute turned-to-11 blast playing the bad guy, a perfectly sculpted creature that is equal parts smoothie-downing tech-bro and insane James Bond supervillain.
I won’t cry for Kosinski – Top Gun: Maverick proves that the director will be able to make whatever he wants going forward, no matter the love, or lack thereof, for Spiderhead. But this ain’t the drug for me.
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