DIRECTOR: Joseph Kosinski

CAST: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Tess Haubrich, Bebe Bettencourt, Mark Paguio, Sam Delich, Joey Vieira, Daniel Reader, Ron Smyck, Stephen Tongun

RUNNING TIME: 106 mins

CERTIFICATE: 15

BASICALLY…: At a futuristic prison facility, a convict (Teller) volunteers for an experimental drug trial…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

Joseph Kosinski is riding a significant high right now: his long-delayed blockbuster, Top Gun: Maverick, has become the most beloved summer blockbuster in a number of years, he’s just signed on to direct Apple’s upcoming Formula 1 racing film with Brad Pitt, and to top things off he’s also got Spiderhead now out on Netflix which, like those other past and future projects, contains a serious dosage of star power, and not just in front of the camera either.

However, Spiderhead is engaging in almost the exact opposite way that Top Gun: Maverick was. Based on George Saunders’ short story Escape from Spiderhead, Kosinski’s film – made during the extended downtime between making Top Gun: Maverick in 2019 and its eventual release three years later – is a fascinatingly strange experience, exploring a number of different tones and ideas that might be individually solid, but when clamped together make for a weirdly disjointed, but still rather entertaining, mess.

The film is set almost entirely on a remote incarceration facility called Spiderhead, which is less like a prison and more like the finest modern luxury hotel you’ve ever stayed at; the inmates are free to go just about anywhere they please (except away from the facility, of course), and interact with their fellow prisoners and overseers like they’re all just buddies hanging out together in paradise. The condition is that they all volunteer for a series of experimental drug trials, which are run by the facility’s creator Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), who regularly tests the concoction of drugs that are inserted into inmates’ bodies via a weird Simon game device attached to their lower backs. They are designed to influence emotions and feelings, from overwhelming fear to extreme horniness (leading to more than one scene of two inmates suddenly starting to bang like they’re in a hardcore porno), which Abnesti closely observes from a distance. However, when one of his test subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller), falls for fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), it leads to an unnerving truth being uncovered about the facility’s true intentions.

From the opening, Spiderhead makes it clear that its tone is going to be a little all over the place: sometimes it’s a dark comedy, then it’s a straightforward sci-fi thriller, before then transforming into an all-out prison movie for an action-heavy climax. The script is written by duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, but think less Zombieland or Deadpool Reese and Wernick and more 6 Underground Reese and Wernick, for Spiderhead flirts with several different genres as often as their Michael Bay script did, only Kosinski is arguably a far more focused filmmaker than Bay often is. While Kosinski does fine operating behind the camera, even he struggles to find the proper way to tell this particular story, especially with this script that fires on far too many cylinders for its own good. Certain soundtrack choices will also dictate a scene’s overall mood, even when things are supposed to be pretty intense; for example, Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” plays during a harsh sequence late in the film, which does confuse how you’re supposed to feel despite the ironic intentions being clear as day.

At least the movie has some kind of personality (multiples of them, in fact), which does make the viewing experience a little more engaging, even when you know for a fact that there are some really dumb things that happen in this plot. It’s easy to point out things which don’t make much sense, or happen so conveniently in order to move the plot forward, but there is an admirably anarchic sense of humour which doesn’t always fit the mood, yet still carries a lot of your interest along with other factors. For one, the acting in the movie is solid, including a somewhat miscast Chris Hemsworth in a role that was clearly meant for someone like Brad Pitt (in fairness, Hemsworth has plenty of fun doing a pretty decent Pitt impersonation throughout the movie), and some of the odd and out-of-place moments of comedy are so strange and tonally inconsistent that it becomes an entertaining game of simply spotting where another movie has suddenly taken over from the current one.

As flawed as it is, Spiderhead is never boring, because you’re either fully engrossed in an over-the-top performance or admiring the unintentionally amusing inconsistencies in tone, plotting, characterisation and even humour. It’s a wildly inconsistent ride that’s nowhere even close to the sky-highs of Top Gun: Maverick, but Kosinski’s other 2022 film is entertaining in wildly different fashion.

SO, TO SUM UP…

Spiderhead suffers from severe tonal issues, which are amplified by a messy script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that flirts with several moods and genres all at once, but director Joseph Kosinski’s film still manages to mine an anarchic but still identifiable personality thanks to some entertaining performances and a host of unintentionally amusing inconsistencies.

Spiderhead is now available to stream on Netflix.

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