Imagine if there were a giant, multi-billion-dollar machine fueled by human attention; a massive contraption that could only be sustained by attracting every pair of eyeballs on Earth through the use of an algorithm that mulched art into content, and reduced audiences into data points. Now imagine how ironic it would be if someone took a singular work of sci-fi satire — a mordantly funny nugget of short fiction about a prison where inmates are used as test subjects for potent new drugs that make them fall in love at the drop of a hat, kill themselves with extreme prejudice, or overwrite the very essence of human individuality in various other ways — and fed it into that big machine with the hope of it becoming the next thing people look at on their magic slabs for 364 million view hours.
If that all sounds more like something that might happen in a George Saunders story than it does something that should happen to a George Saunders story, well, nobody at Netflix seems to have gotten the message. Or maybe they did, and were simply powerless to stop themselves from going through with it.
In fairness to Netflix, no one else in Hollywood would even try to make a mid-budget, high-concept, star-driven sci-fi movie based on something first published in The New Yorker. More to the point, there isn’t any reason to assume that Joseph Kosinski’s “Spiderhead” — which the “Top Gun: Maverick” director shot in late 2020, safe in the knowledge that he’d already earned himself a mulligan — would have been any better if someone else in Hollywood had.
The fact of the matter is that adapting a George Saunders story to fit the mold of a modern studio movie is sort of like adapting an orgy into a condom. Here, where playing things safe doesn’t offer any of the same protections, that process leads to a film in which every scene chafes to one extent or another. It’s a film that, for all of its mild intrigue, passable entertainment, and frustrated auteurism, is so determined to sand the edges off its wildly idiosyncratic source material that even people who’ve never heard of “Escape from Spiderhead” will be able to tell Netflix’s version doesn’t capture the a spirit of the original.
One ends with its homicidal protagonist halfway to hell and cathartically declining a chance to come back to life — the other ends with a super-thick Miles Teller smiling on a speedboat as something explodes in the background and “She Blinded Me with Science” (or one of the movie’s other cheese-rock jams) plays over the soundtrack. One feels like it’s in conversation with Kurt Vonnegut and Charlie Kaufman, while the other feels like it’s cribbing notes from Michael Bay’s “The Island.”
“Spiderhead” may not be a disaster — Kosinski is too competent, and star Chris Hemsworth too charismatic, for this to fall short of a decent Friday night on the couch — but someone who rose to prominence with hyper-idiosyncratic blockbusters like “Tron 2.0” and “Oblivion” should have been a better fit to adapt a story about how people are ineffably capable of resisting the corporate interests that try to snuff out what makes them unique. Alas, Kosinski has followed the most spectacular movie of his career with the most generic, and it’s hard to be happy about that no matter what the serotonin might be telling you.
And watching Hemsworth affect Brad Pitt-like swagger as the devilishly handsome pharmaceutical scientist who runs the subtropical penitentiary where this movie takes place will trigger at least a few splashes of serotonin. His name is Mr. Abnesti (but you can just call him “Steve”), and his Jony Ive-looking jail is so nice and relaxed that even people in Norwegian prisons would probably kill to be incarcerated there. Inmate Jeff (Teller) might be haunted for his role in the drunk driving incident that killed his best friend, but — in the wise words of Nicole Kidman — somehow heartbreak feels good in a place like this.
It doesn’t hurt that he gets to share living quarters with the beautiful Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), or that he’s clearly Steve’s favorite pet. Sure, the prisoners have to wear little MobiPacks™ on the small of their backs, which are full of mood-specific superdrugs that Steve can control from his iPhone like he’s just adjusting a dimmer switch on Google Home, but even that’s not so bad. For one thing, Jeff and his pals have to give verbal consent every time that Steve juices them up, which he only does during strictly monitored experiments. For another thing, some of those experiments involve Jeff and a comely inmate named Heather (Tess Haubrich) getting flooded with a drug that sweetens them into soulmates who spontaneously have the best sex of their lives with each other. Of course, being manipulated into loving someone leaves Jeff with a terrible aftertaste, and Heather isn’t always the person sitting across from him.
Even worse are the Stanley Milgram-like experiments that Steve asks Jeff to help administer — the ones where he’s told to pump other prisoners full of the psychosis-inducing Darkenfloxx™. The dried blood on Jeff’s hands may never wash off, but that doesn’t mean he’s willing to get them any dirtier. Yesterday he was a man-slaughterer and today he’s a guinea pig, but maybe he can still choose to be something else tomorrow (in Saunders’ original, Jeff begins the story having already chosen to be a murderer, a decision much bolder and more compelling than any of the ones that “Deadpool 2” screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick make in this relentlessly milquetoast adaptation).
For most of “Spiderhead,” which borrows its name from the area of the prison where Steve conducts his experiments, Jeff doesn’t choose to do much of anything. He’s a passenger and a participant in equal measure, but really he’s our front-row seat for Steve’s efforts to alchemize human behavior, which transpire across a handful of samey (if increasingly ominous) scenes that get by on the strength of Hemsworth’s seductive charm and Kosinski’s fetish for intriguingly sterile environments. Away from the Spiderhead, we get to watch Jeff create masterpieces on his Etch-a-Sketch — another hint that identity can be rewritten — and morosely flirt with Lizzy when he’s not trying to figure out which of his fellow inmates is the mysterious “Shitfinger” who keeps finger-painting the prison walls with shit.
Kosinski has too firm a hand over the film’s tone to keep its story from completely fraying apart, but all of this stuff is so basic that “Spiderhead” can’t help but feel like it’s trying to hide something; not a twist (though it invents one bad enough to epitomize why the screenwriting 101 approach is such a fatal mistake when adapting a story about someone’s power to rewrite their own), but an emptiness. It’s the same emptiness that Kosinski tries to pave over with his upbeat, off-kilter soundtrack full of Hall & Oates and other yacht rock heroes, as if to say “I promise something wild is happening just under the surface!”
In the film’s most suspenseful moments, that “something” appears to be Steve himself, as Hemsworth smoothly develops the character’s daddy issues towards the suggestion that even a hunk as put-together as he might be at the mercy of forces beyond his control. But “Spiderhead,” despite its lip service about self-torture, never pushes itself hard enough to earn any kind of absolution. For a movie so preoccupied with the choices that people can make, “Spiderhead” invariably makes the least interesting ones available to it, which is a serious problem for a movie streaming on a platform whose subscribers are never far removed from the choice to be watching something else instead.
“Spiderhead” starts streaming on Netflix on Friday, June 17.