Released: 17th June
Seen: 3rd July
Netflix has been having what can generously be described as “A shitty year that’s been very shitty”. Their numbers of subscribers have been dropping, their revenue is dropping and they keep just landing in controversy after controversy. They also keep spending exorbitant amounts of money on absolute garbage films that have little to sell themselves on beyond the star power of the lead actor. To be absolutely blunt, Spiderhead looked like it was going to fall into that category but good news, it’s not absolute garbage… it’s just not very good.
Spiderhead takes place on a strange little island where a scientist named Steve (Chris Hemsworth) is running a very strange and elaborate test with a bunch of felons who signed up to the test because it would mean time got taken off their sentence. One of those test subjects is Jeff (Miles Teller) who is in prison for accidentally killing two people while he was drunk driving. Jeff is regularly brought in to test a drug that creates a temporary romantic relationship between him and whoever he shares a room with (AKA it’s a very fancy roofie) but eventually he forms a real non-drug-based relationship with another test subject, Lizzie (Jurnee Smollett). Eventually, as one would expect, the test turns dark and its evil intentions are revealed, intentions that will put Jeff and Lizzie’s feelings to the ultimate test.
The real test of Spiderhead is ultimately just trying to care enough to make it through the entire film. For a film that takes the evils of modern pharmaceutical companies and turns them up to 11, it’s almost impressive how dull this film ends up being. This isn’t for a lack of trying, you can really tell that everyone here is giving their all to try and make something work. The performances are universally good, although it is incredibly jarring seeing Chris Hemsworth trying to pass himself off as a scientist when he constantly looks like he’s about to do a perfume commercial at any second, and it’s hard to deny that the film looks pretty damn great. The simple single setting of the Spiderhead laboratory should give the film some kind of tension… but it never does.
The problem with Spiderhead is the script, written by the creative team of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick who seem to have developed a bit of a pattern… namely, they can write a damn good comedic script (Deadpool 1 & 2, Zombieland 1 & 2) but if they have to do something that’s just a more generic action film (G.I. Joe: Retaliation, 6 Underground) then they end up falling short… and this is definitely them falling short. There are no risks being taken here, the story doesn’t dare go into anything exciting or creative. It’s basically just about a bunch of attractive people who get roofied into having pretty basic sex with other attractive people (AKA a thing that would’ve taken them about 3 decent cocktails to do) and then those same people go on a bad mushroom trip… and that’s about it until the basic action movie ending.
It’s almost too restrained, unwilling to actually utilize the idea it’s being presented with to the maximum. Spiderhead suggests a world where a few chemicals injected into the spine can completely change someone’s personality and the best thing they can think of doing is fucking and being scared of a stapler? Not even interesting fucking either, just basic missionary that’s meant to be shocking because one of the women is slightly older than the main character. It holds back, which removes any real punch from the ideas it’s seemingly trying to get across. It might look in the general direction of these ideas, there’s a scene where Jeff is placed in a testing room with a large heavily tattooed man and it’s certainly implied that they might run the same fuck test that they ran earlier but nope, they just walk out without doing anything because why actually do something that might be a little bit interesting or shocking?
Without anything to actually demand the audience’s attention, eventually Spiderhead just kind of stops bothering and races towards a very bland climax. Sure there are major revelations about motives and what’s really going on, but they’re stupidly handled and add nothing much of interest to the actual proceedings (hell, the biggest reveal is so obvious that you will undoubtedly guess it within about 15 minutes of the film starting). Even things that should matter, like the crimes that actually put these people here in the first place, end up just falling away like they’re complete afterthoughts.
Somewhere there’s a good film hidden in Spiderhead’s web of boredom, there’s an interesting concept and good performers who could’ve really brought something interesting and dangerous to life… but that’s not what we got. We got a film that’s got all the bite of a sponge and all the excitement of a slightly damp sponge. The film just exists, promising something interesting but never actually delivering it. Maybe if you’re a superfan of one of the actors you might get something out of it, but even then, it’s just so bland that you probably won’t end up remembering it.