I compare the experience of watching “Spiderhead,” a new psychological prison thriller starring Chris Hemsworth, Jurnee Smollett and Miles Teller and now streaming on Netflix, with going to a nice restaurant with a dirty bathroom. The food, service and atmosphere are top notch, but go to the restroom after dinner and if it’s dirty, that’s what you’ll remember most about your visit.
Such is the fate of “Spiderhead,” a movie that makes a good impression right up until the final minutes.
Hemsworth is visionary Steve Abnesti, a chemist who runs Spiderhead, a remote penal institution where his experimental, mind-altering drugs are tested on inmates. Prisoners live in beautiful cells that resemble hip hotel rooms and eat gourmet food. There are no bars on the doors and not a single orange jumpsuit in sight. “Your presence in this facility,” says Abnesti, “while technically a punishment, is a privilege.”
In return for the relaxed rules and relative luxury of the prison, inmates are equipped with a module or Mobi-Pak containing mood altering drugs. Administered by the amiable Abnesti, these concoctions are part of a larger study analyze the effects of manipulating emotions. “Our work will save lives,” says Abnesti. “Not just one life, many lives. We’re making the world a better place.”
Inmate Jeff (Teller) is Abnesti’s go to guinea pig. The pair have a special bond forged over a shared belief that the inmate experiments are for the good of all humanity. But when Jeff is forced into partaking in a cruel drug trial, he suspects his trust has been misplaced. “The time to worry about crossing lines,” Abnesti says, “was a lot of lines ago.”
Based on the New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, the film explores moral dilemmas and the ethical quandary of exerting control over the powerless for personal gain. The very idea of forced injections is an even bigger hot button topic than when Saunders wrote the short story.
So why did I feel like I just left a dirty bathroom as the end credits rolled?
It’s the recency theory. The last thing you see is the thing that makes the lasting impression and “Spiderhead,” despite an interesting premise, some good performances and a growing atmosphere of apprehension and mistrust, rushes the ending to the point where you wonder if the filmmakers ran out of film, time or interest in the story. Tonally, the all-of-a-sudden action packed ending feels tacked on and uninspired.
Ultimately, “Spiderhead” disappoints because it gets so much right, but, in the end, doesn’t trust the idea-driven story to satisfy.