‘Spiderhead’ review: Hemsworth, Teller in wild Netflix thriller

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What do you get by mixing a New Yorker short story, the writers of “Deadpool,” the director of “Top Gun: Maverick” and stars Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller? “Spiderhead” — an intelligent, sometimes moving, sometimes funny sci-fi examination of emotional autonomy amid futuristic pharmaceuticals, until an awkward shift into thriller territory dilutes its purity.

Convicts (played by Teller, Jurnee Smollett and others) volunteer to participate in a study of extremely powerful mood-altering drugs in a remote island facility. Cheerful scientist Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) runs the place like a summer camp/rehab center where he hopes everyone can be friends. Think of a tall, studly Michael Scott with the power to make you feel anything he wishes. The drugs can make subjects “fall in love,” find horrible things irresistibly hilarious, become debilitated with fear or feel the worst they’ve ever felt. What could go wrong?

The DNA of director Joseph Kosinski’s film includes strains of “Brave New World” and other meditations on the intersection of humanity and technology: the kind of fiction that questions how what we feel and what makes us human could be hijacked, enhanced or diminished by science. “Better living through chemistry?” they ponder. There’s also a hint of the Stanford Prison Experiment.

But what lingers with the viewer is the philosophical question of how much control over your emotions, or freedom to experience them, you would be willing to surrender in the right circumstance.

As expected from vaguely dystopian sci-fi, the dangers of the science — particularly because the hands wielding it are not one’s own — take center stage over any potential benefits. The film doesn’t explore the possibility that such superdrugs could be the next step in antidepressants, or any angles that might complicate the simple goals of a one-hour, 47-minute pseudo-thriller.

Unfortunately, the thriller-ness of “Spiderhead” feels tacked on. In Hollywood parlance, , there is a clear third act to this film, and it shifts gears from the low-key human story to action-oriented scenes that provide trailer fodder.

The change was made for the movies: The George Saunders short story “Escape From Spiderhead” has a thoughtful, elegiac denouement. It’s not about suspense beyond the tension within the protagonist’s conscience. Even with the addition of action scenes and more sinister underpinnings, the main attraction of the film remains the short story’s personal drama, enhanced onscreen with linings of dread and executed with wit and some good acting.

Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth, left) tests powerful, mood-altering drugs on volunteering convicts such as Jeff (Miles Teller) in “Spiderhead.”

(Netflix)

Teller’s lead performance is characteristically layered and complex. The “Whiplash” star is certainly having a moment, between the smash success of Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick” and his Paramount+ making-of-“The Godfather” miniseries “The Offer.” He plays subtext beautifully in “Spiderhead,” with plangent notes of regret. We believe the pain and shame that has driven him. Smollett (“Lovecraft Country”) is likewise sympathetic and real-feeling as a fellow inmate with a similarly traumatic past. The instantly emotion-altering drugs also provide what look like fun acting challenges with sudden, drastic changes in perception.

Hemsworth, who co-produced, skirts excess as the scientist; his performance sometimes feels right and sometimes pushed. The character clearly thinks his narcissistic enthusiasm passes for charm. And Hemsworth has proven how game he is with his humorous reinvention of the MCU’s Thor (more to come, with “Thor: Love and Thunder” due in a few weeks), but a certain spark, or perhaps groundedness, is lacking here.

“Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick do bring an intriguing thread of the damage done by the lack of parental love to their adaptation. Steve’s increasingly hollow words contain echoes of certain powerful men whose insufficient relationships with their fathers fostered insatiable needs for success and adulation. There can be clear lines from that trauma of childhood neglect to an attempt at empathy that manifests as cruelty.

Aesthetically, “Spiderhead” is sleek and attractive. It harks back to other small-scale, COVID-era sci-fi such as Apple’s “Swan Song” with Mahershala Ali. Despite a résumé heavy on CGI, commercials and action spectacles, Kosinski’s greatest successes in “Spiderhead” are the memorable moments among his actors, as in “Maverick” (apart from the aerial action). “Spiderhead” is not a case of form over substance — or substance abuse — despite the ill fit of the thriller detour.

Kosinski and his music supervisors also have fun with late-’70s/early-’80s pop culture, stuffing the soundtrack with radio hits and decorating the set with video games of the time (“Joust,” anyone?). Why that period? There’s no obvious answer, but it’s fun.

‘Spiderhead’

Rating: R for violent content, language and sexual content

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Playing: In limited theatrical release and streaming on Netflix June 17

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