Usually, when a movie is under-marketed, it is not because the producers or the distributors, or the talent are busy. Even though that is exactly what they will tell you. But if they want, they can or will do 12 hours of press all around the globe to make sure that their latest product reaches the masses. I am telling you that from experience. The real reason is that the studio doesn’t have confidence in what the director and the team have done, and they don’t want to invest any more in it. So, when I witnessed the under-marketing of “Spiderhead,” a film that’s directed by Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun: Maverick“), written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Deadpool,” “Deadpool 2,” “Zombieland”) and stars Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth, and Jurnee Smollett, I thought it must be too bad to promote. It turns out that the movie is good, even bordering on greatness.
“Spiderhead” is about the titular facility, which is run by Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth), along with his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio). What is this facility? Well, it’s an experimental jail where criminals are sent to be tested upon. The details are fuzzy (or I just didn’t catch it), but it looks like if they partake in this process, then they don’t have to stay in jail, and they’ll receive a reduced sentence at the end of it. What are the experiments? The inmates have to take experimental drugs that induce laughter, fear, anxiety, love, positivity, and another emotion that can’t be revealed for the sake of spoilers. The effects of those drugs will be examined. And the thing that will be observed the most is whether these drugs are overriding the inmates’ basic cognitive skills. Steve says that it’s his way of fixing the world and making it a hub for only and only love. Jeff (Teller), an inmate there, starts to see through his crap.
Kosinski, Rheese, and Wernick are not the subtlest of storytellers when it comes to tackling the themes of their subject material. And it undoubtedly benefits “Spiderhead” and the people they are trying to address through it. Steve is every modern fascist leader ever, every “workaholic” CEO ever, every “I want to heal the world” entrepreneur ever, and every person who tells those who point out how capitalism is killing free will by saying “what you are getting is enough.” The use of an ugly building in the middle of nowhere drives home the point that people are truly at the mercy of those who are controlling their perception, just like this small planet we’re on that’s filled with corporations fine-tuning nostalgia, happiness, anger, and exhaustion so that we can be their guinea pigs for life. The movie wants to hit those who hold the remote and those who are being remotely controlled. And things are so bad that there’s no point in being profound about it.
“Spiderhead” itself feels like an experiment on us. Because the characters’ ability to empathize with each other isn’t the only thing that’s being poked at. Ours is on the line as well. The casting of, let’s say, traditionally attractive actors like Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich, Mark Paguio, and more is done to see how far we are willing to suspend our morality for these villainous characters. Yes, some of them are objectively villains. Others are villains according to the law. But isn’t the law in place to give us an objective view of people? If it is not, then what defines our morality? Does causing death due to drinking and driving, accidental murder, willful murder, etc. require context? If so, then are we asking for context only when we are physically attracted to the person in question? Are our parameters of physical attractiveness our own or fed into our system by corporations? If not, then are we truly free? Now, that’s food for thought.
Joseph Kosinski has tackled sci-fi with “Tron: Legacy” and “Oblivion,” drama with “Only the Brave,” and the best action the world has seen or is ever going to see in the near future with “Top Gun: Maverick.” “Spiderhead” seems to be his attempt at dark comedy with a healthy dose of emotional drama. He nails the latter down like a boss, but his ability to be darkly comedic is inconsistent. Everything he does with Steve, Jeff, and Lizzy is amazing. The mix of comfy and suffocating atmosphere that he creates with DOP Claudio Miranda, editor Stephen Mirrione, and production designer Jeremy Hindle is diabolical. You see “Laffodil,” the Bingo card, the sex chart, and hear about the Rwandan genocide, and think that that is bold. But when it comes to the grotesqueness of it all, he doesn’t make you squeamish. He should’ve gone full “A Cure for Wellness” (“Spiderhead” feels like its spiritual successor”) here. And no, that’s not his way of saying we’ve become insensitive to violence.
The performances from the cast are brilliant. This is probably Chris Hemsworth’s career-best performance, right? There’s no doubt that, quantity-wise, his work as Thor is immense. But it’s only by watching him as Steve that you realize the kind of range he’s capable of. The way he compliments himself on his looks and genius. The way he carries himself. The line that he walks between being a fascist and an empath. It is all magnificent to look at, which is why Hemsworth should retire as Thor and start playing attractive psychopaths for some time. Miles Teller is great. Everything about his acting here shows how oppressed his character is by his guilt and how he’s being pushed to the extreme by Steve. Teller’s chemistry with Jurnee Smollett is so organic. That’s why the scene where she opens up (and Smollett acts the hell out of that scene) about her past reduced me to tears. The supporting cast is fantastic, with Tess Haubrich and Mark Paguio being the most memorable.
As mentioned earlier, it’s truly bizarre that “Spiderhead” has been marketed so poorly. You have the director of one of the most successful movies of the year and one of the best movies of the year. You have the writers of two of the most successful R-rated movies. You have Thor himself. You have two stars who are at the peak of their careers and are literally incapable of giving a bad performance. And they have all come together to make a silly, very unsubtle, raunchy, and uncomfortable movie that examines the boundaries of morality and questions our definition of free will. Well, what’s done is done, and all that we can do is watch the movie and appreciate it for what it is (or not if you don’t like it). I highly recommend giving it a try because you’ll certainly walk away with some questions about how we perceive reality and whether we should trust the people who have taken the responsibility to control our lives.