Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller get lost in Spiderhead, a thrill-less sci-fi maze
Spiderhead arrives with a promising pedigree: It's directed by Joseph Kosinksi, fresh off his Top Gun: Maverick triumph, from a lauded short story by the Booker Prize-winning novelist George Saunders, and somehow snagged Chris Hemsworth between his Thor and Furiosa duties to star. If only there were more web to weave in this lank, silly adaption (on Netflix June 17), a sci-fi thriller so dull-edged and obvious, it defies the sum of its parts.
Hemsworth, his features still a feat of golden symmetry, is a man named Steve Abnesti who presents himself not as a medical doctor, exactly, but as the "vision guy" overseeing an experimental penal program set in some unspecified near-future. The participants, all convicted felons, have a choice: Go along with the daily lab tests at the idyllic seaside compound that passes for a prison here (though it looks more like a villain's lair, or maybe Jeff Bezos' weekend retreat), or return to real incarceration and face the consequences.
Which means that inmates like Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Underground's Jurnee Smollett) get snacks and smoothies and their own plush private rooms, but they also have to say yes to mind-altering medications of unknowable daily doses in their spinal ports. A given pharmaceutical might makes the user feel suddenly, drastically sexy toward whomever's in the room (Luvactin), and another works like a waking nightmare (Darkenfloxx); one just gives you the tools to talk about all of it, at least temporarily (Verbaluce).
Steve has a faithful assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), and an ever-present playlist of Doobie Brothers and Supertramp to soundtrack his sessions, but the lab's standards otherwise seem surprisingly lax: no control groups, no long graphs of data sheets, no oversight beyond a few vague references to unseen overlords. It's just Steve, bright-eyed and maniacally ingratiating, like a high-school drama teacher or the increasingly desperate director of a pyramid scheme. Teller's Jeff, inevitably, begins to suspect that something is not right, though guilt over the crime that landed him there — seen in flashbacks that look disconcertingly like Coors Light ads — and his growing feelings for Smollett's undersketched Lizzy give him pause.
Kosinski, who also helmed Oblivion and Tron: Legacy, should know his way around sleek dystopias by now. And Spiderhead does seem expensive, from its luxe tech-lord setting to its starry cast. But it never feels real for a moment, largely because the adapted screenplay, by writing partners Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) is so stilted and clumsy, simultaneously underbaked and overwrought. Both men have written much better movies, so it's a mystery why their script replaces wit and emotional investment with sub-Vonnegut social critiques and yacht-rock needle drops.
That leaves Hemsworth, Teller, and Smollett to do the best they can with reams of clunky exposition and characters essentially drawn in crayon; at an hour and 47 minutes, that's a lot of Apple-store décor to fill. There's a version embedded in here somewhere that could have been fun, even camp, if not for the constant laborious effort of telegraphing every plot twist and motivation. (The movie rarely meets a point it can't make three times over, then hit with a mallet.) And for all the pretty scenery, the thrills, such as they are — a nefarious and heavily portended endgame will be revealed in due time — run out long before the hectic climax. By then, it's hard to find the motivation to figure out what got lost from page to screen, or exactly who, in the end, this legless Spider was made for. Grade: C–
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