With Top Gun: Maverick ruling the cinematic experience and Spiderhead ruling Netflix I think it’s time to talk about Joseph Kosinski. The man is responsible for some really fun films, including but not limited to Tron: Legacy and Oblivion (I am aware that I am one of the only people that enjoys that film). He’s got a blockbuster flair with an auteur’s design, but his willingness to make everything feel like a big ol’ movie is what I really appreciate about him. His two biggest films are some of the most interestingly designed of the 21st century so far, but now he’s gone with a smaller film in adapting George Saunders’s absolutely wild short story “Escape from Spiderhead.”
He’s done a good job, though the film fails to live up to the absolute insanity of the written word.
Jeff (Miles Teller, who Kosinski seems to have a fondness for) is living in a location with no view of the outside world. He’s on friendly terms with Steve (Chris Hemsworth), who runs this facility. You see, Jeff is incarcerated. Once upon a time, he was merely a drunk-driving dude-bro living his best life in what looked like South Florida, but now he lives in what appears to be a very charming and comfortable hotel-esque prison that lets everyone walk around and do what they like within certain guidelines. Jeff has even made a friend in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), a woman in for robbery that enjoys her casual flirtation in their prison.
But that doesn’t explain the packs on their back, nor the variety of colored liquids that occupy them. It doesn’t explain what Steve is doing when he puts Jeff in a room with the lovely Heather (Tess Haubrich) and asks, “Drip on?” Jeff replies with, “Acknowledge,” but we have no clue what this is at first. Patience, it will come.
Spiderhead chooses to take a darkly comic approach to the absolute bananas source material. Teller isn’t all that funny, but he is allowed to play the drier character and allow Hemsworth to absolutely shine. The Avengers: Endgame actor is a funny guy, as seen in films like the 2016 Ghostbusters (don’t @ me), and he gets to lean into this behavior here. Hemsworth is funniest when he’s cocky, goofy, and leaving room for an underlying sadness to eke its way out from under his skin. Teller matches him, offering a believable “friends of convenience” energy to Hemsworth that is fine enough to function.
The first half of the film really is the best part. We’re delivered a high-tension sci-fi thriller that allows the viewer to try figuring it out instead of just lobbing everything at us as Kosinski does in the back half. The twists are fairly obvious, but by the time we arrive at them we’re sated enough to buy in from there. Believable chemistry between all performers helps life what might be a disappointing film into one that’s actually quite charming.
Kosinski returns to long-time collaborator Joseph Trapanese for music, but the man gets lost in the shuffle. Previous joint efforts like Oblivion, Only the Brave, and Tron: Legacy (composed with Daft Punk) stood up as wonderfully inventive bits of music, but with Spiderhead he gets lost in the shuffle. Everything takes a backburner to the popular music used, some diagetic and some non-diagetic, rendering the score inert and ineffective as anything but creative white noise.
While it isn’t perfect, Spiderhead is an unsettling and decently watchable film that I had a good time with. I’m even looking forward to showing it to a few other people, but it stands as a curious object from a director that currently has the biggest film in the world gracing our screens.
Spiderhead is currently on Netflix.