In the near future, convicts are offered the chance to volunteer as medical subjects to shorten their sentence. One such subject for a new drug capable of generating feelings of love begins questioning the reality of his emotions.
Echoing “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” Joseph Kosinski’s “Spiderhead” deals with a behavioral study conducted in a penitentiary that goes horribly awry. Based on the short story by George Saunders that appeared in “The New Yorker,” the film succeeds at the most basic level by making the characters and their situations relatable, presenting “What would I do?” situations throughout that organically generate empathy in the viewer. That the jailbirds in question are presented benignly helps as well.
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is the mastermind behind this project, one that takes place in a concrete bunker in the Caribbean, labeled a “prison” but actually a laboratory. The inmates (subjects) have volunteered to be there, knowing they are required to participate in seemingly innocuous exercises. In exchange they have access to any area in the facility, reside in a free-flowing community and are told their contributions will benefit the greater good.
Problem is that these experiments are growing more and more nefarious. Each of the prisoners are outfitted with a device that dispenses varying doses of four different drugs into their systems via an app of Abnesti’s design. Without question, these medications work. One makes you eat until you vomit and ask for more, while another can cause two individuals who can’t stand one another suddenly feel uncontrollably amorous towards each other. These behavioral alterations are just the tip of the pharmaceutical iceberg.
As I said, the prisoners in question are hardly hardcore criminals but rather well-meaning people, fallen victim to a single moment of weakness. Jeff (a very good Miles Teller) is locked up on a manslaughter charge, but it’s his guilt that keeps him prisoner. It also makes him quite vulnerable, and this is the button Abnesti pushes again and again in order to make him comply with his questionable practices. Once the good doctor discovers his attraction to fellow inmate Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), he uses this situation to bend Jeff to his will.
The film keeps us hooked thanks to the intriguing moral dilemmas the characters are forced to deal with, each Catch-22 situations that only lead to ruin. Though initially played for laughs, the fact that they’re being mercilessly manipulated wears on the subjects, their sense of self-esteem the most vital casualty. They are eager to atone for their transgressions, buying into the notion that in participating in these trials, they are not only paying for their sins, but helping others, Abnesti plying them with the notion that their sacrifice will help save others from succumbing to the behaviors that led to their downfall.
Teller’s portrayal is spot on, as he shows Jeff’s placid demeanor slowly eroding, his vulnerability coming to the fore. There’s a desperation to the character the actor displays in the most subtle of ways, drawing us in thanks to his humanistic approach. Equally effective is Hemsworth, gleefully skewering his bigger-than-life heroic image. The boyish charm he’s used so effectively in the past now has a malevolent edge that he ultimately can’t contain.
Kosinski, who made the film during the pandemic after helming “Top Gun: Maverick,” isn’t above employing a bit of irony with the lighter-than-helium yacht rock tunes that suffuse the soundtrack, their tone belying the amoral shenanigans that are afoot. It’s heavy-handed but provides a grin or two. Unfortunately, he botches the ending, resorting to a standard, action-filled third act, that bores rather than thrills. While “Spiderhead’s premise is outlandish, the frailties on display are all too human and, regrettably, recognizable.