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Last month was the release Top Gun: Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski’s second legacy sequel after 2010’s Tron: Legacy. Considering the film’s original release was summer 2020, but got pushed back, because of a certain pandemic, the long wait was worth it as not only was it a sequel that improved from its 1986 predecessor, but the most recent example of a legacy sequel done right. During the wait for his Top Gun sequel to be released, Kosinski has directed another film, Spiderhead, which is now available to stream on Netflix.
Based on George Saunders’ dystopian short story “Escape from Spiderhead”, published in The New Yorker, the eponymous research facility, run by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), is experimenting with the effects of emotion-altering drugs. The test subjects, technically prisoners of the state, are volunteers for the project, aiming to reduce their sentence time. Amongst these subjects, is Jeff (Miles Teller), who develops a bond with fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), and whilst he is wrestling with his own past, he suspects a sinister agenda going on in Spiderhead.
After making his biggest film to date with Top Gun: Maverick, you do get the sense that Kosinski wanted to go small with Spiderhead, which relies on its one location comprising of a small group of characters. Kosinski’s early credentials was where he was educated in architecture and eventual work on CGI-related television commercials. You can see that passion for design with his first sci-fi features Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, both of which reveled in their over-extravagant surface. In the case of the near-future setting of Spiderhead, the surface isn’t as flashy, but how it approaches technology, which blends mobile phone usage and drug implants introduces a scary notion of where we could go.
The sci-fi prison movie is not obviously not a thing and at least for the mainstream, it is a subgenre of action movies. With Spiderhead, the setting is used to explore how one deals with their own emotions and how drugs are not the best solution to deal with such issues. Sure, the message isn’t subtle, especially when the drugs are used under someone else’s control. The ideas are interesting, so why doesn’t the film live up that potential?
One can argue that Kosinski isn’t quite in line with the adaptation by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose scripts tend to have a black sense of humor. Given its source material, this could’ve worked as an episode of Black Mirror, but as a feature film, it does feel oddly-paced and only comes to life halfway through when something dark occurs, but when the climax ensues, it is more laughable than intense.
Ultimately, what sustains the film’s watchability is the performances. Starting with Chris Hemsworth, who went from being the world hunkiest computer hacker in Michael Mann’s Blackhat, to faring better here as a charismatic yet sinister tech entrepreneur. Whilst Hemsworth delivers the showier role, his co-star Miles Teller is all about the vulnerability with his performance where his silence speaks louder than words. As for Jurnee Smollett, who doesn’t get much to do other than to show tenderness, until towards the end where there is a surprising intensity that is revealed and in heartbreaking.
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