Main Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Dystopian sci-fi that takes place in the near future has become a little unsettling as of late (to say the least). But sometimes I’ll still dip my toe into these worlds, especially if there is a promising cast member or two.

And this is how I made my way to Spiderhead. I’ve thought for quite a while that Chris Hemsworth had more to offer than just action heroes. He has great comedic timing and I wanted to see what he would do in this role.

Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti. Abnesti (who really, really wants everyone to call him Steve, but they don’t) is head of a very special prison. Inmates have nice quarters, good food, quite a bit of freedom, and shortened sentences. In return they test new pharmaceuticals.

It seems like a good deal at first. The drug tests don’t seem too bad or harmful. Our main character is Jeff (Miles Teller). He seems relatively content with the arrangement at first. He’s deeply remorseful for the incident that led to his incarceration and endures the negative side of the drug trials with the stoic acceptance of someone who thinks they deserve them.

Spiderhead takes us on Jeff’s journey as he begins to question the projects and methods Abnesti insists will improve millions of lives. Based on a short story by George Saunders, we take a look at the manipulation of emotions and join Jeff as he looks for larger truths about the experiments.

I haven’t read the story on which Spiderhead is based. As a film, it succeeds thanks to some really good performances and a setting far enough removed from reality to make it palatable.

Hemsworth is, honestly, great. Abnesti is the most complicated of the characters, at least in terms of demands on the actor. He’s arrogant, insecure, dishonest, needy, tremendously fallible, and idealistic all at once. Hemsworth gets the chance to dip into every layer.

Weirdly, it’s Abnesti who also provides nearly all the comic relief in Spiderhead. He’s not your average villain.

Teller does well with the more somber and steady character of Jeff. He is clearly more grounded than his wardens, and significantly saner. Throughout the various (highly inappropriate) drug tests, he retains a moral compass even though it does not serve him well under the circumstances.

Supporting performances by Jurnee Smollett as a fellow inmate and Mark Paguio as Abnesti’s fellow “scientist” help the leads get the most mileage possible from their characters.

The set design is sparse and utilitarian. The prisoners have what they need, but nothing feels personal. The exception is Abnesti’s rooms, of course. The whole package, including the cinematography of the remote locale of the prison, gives the film a feeling of opulent artifice. Spiderhead refers to the researchers’ control room, a dull, unsophisticated space. It’s a nice juxtaposition with the rest of the facility, the bleak and barren reality underneath the candy coating.

Overall I liked Spiderhead. The story is compelling and Chris Hemsworth is excellent in a role that shows he has a lot more to offer than we’ve seen to date. It’s not soul-searing science fiction, but I have no bandwidth for heavy examinations of detestable futures. The movie is entertaining.  

If you like Black Mirror and could do with a slightly lighter version, Spiderhead is a good choice. It is streaming on Netflix.

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