‘Spiderhead’: Sexy Scientist Tale Fail ⭐️⭐️

During my time covering the Caltech beat for the Pasadena Weekly, I met my share of scientists and some have been tall and a few have been sexy, and more than a few have had more socialization issues than the dogs at the Pasadena Humane Society.  Caltech is one of the places I danced Argentine tango and swing regularly.  So while sadly, there is no Argentine tango involved in “Spiderhead,” I don’t doubt that there exists a few scientists and researchers as sexy as Chris Hemsworth. The failure of this film is part pandemic protocol staging, part poor directorial decisions and part questionable choices on the soundtrack. After a promising start, the film fails under the burden of an incoherent tone.

Based on George Saunders’ short story, “Escape from Spiderhead” which was published in “The New Yorker” in 2010, the film takes its title comes from the name of a research facility. The facility is run by Steve Abnesti with his assistant Mark Verlaine (Mark Baguio)  and they test drugs on prisoners who have volunteered in order to leave the confines of a conventional prison for the cushier, comfortable life at Spiderhead. While the subjects seem to be mostly sympathetic like our POV character Jeff (Miles Teller). Jeff was convicted of the drunk driving death of his friend who was also drunk, but the passenger in the car Jeff drove into a a tree.

The prisoners and the doctor in charge all have a device call a MobiPak connected to the spinal cord and attached to the person like a glow-in-the-dark locator light. Vials of different drugs are placed into the pack and administered by a smartphone application on Steve Abnesti’s phone or from the questionably flimsy control panel on the other side of the window of the observation room. The first drug we see tested seems harmless enough. The drug, Laffodil (G-46) makes people laugh. There’s also Verbuluce or B-15, which makes people talk and improves their vocabulary. You might think this is great for a couple’s therapy session or, even better, for criminals. There are other drugs like Phobica (I-27) that can cause people to have unreasonable fear of inane objects and Obediex (B-6) which makes people highly likely to follow orders. You might imagine Steve is under some governmental psychological warfare covert operation at this point.

If this sounds a bit too clinical, don’t worry.  When you have a free-roaming facility with both men and women, what could be better than a little Luvactin (N-40). This doesn’t create love; it causes people to yield to their carnal desires. Brought into a sparsely furnished observation room, Jeff and Heather (Tess Haubrich), who, prior to being dosed with the drug, have not given each other top ratings in hotness, suddenly find their sexual urges uncontrollable once the drug takes effect. They have a grunting quickie, knowing full well they are being observed. Jeff later gets matched with Emma (BeBe Bettencourt) for the same drug. The results are similar. These scenes are discretely filmed with no nudity.  The scenes aren’t meant to be sexy and there’s nothing to warrant a PG-13 rating. Yet Jeff feels nothing but awkwardness after the drug wears off. He has another woman at the facility that interests him,  (June Smollett). Still Steve brings Jeff behind the observation windows to watch both Emma and Heather. Steve asks Jeff to choose which one will receive Darkenfloxx (I-16), which will put anyone into a dark mood.

When Steve figures out that there is someone who has caught Jeff’s fancy, he’ll use it to manipulate Jeff. That will ultimately result in the unraveling of Steve’s mad scientist ambitions, partially doomed by his own insistence on testing the drugs on himself. However,  if you’ve worked with drugs or know about drug trials, you’ll know that methodology not even on the edge of insanity. It’s a giant leap into a lot of crazy.

“Spiderhead” sometimes looks like people spending time in an Apple store after hours. At that point the to lighting is lovely, but is that what we really need here? A lovely white high tech aesthetic with a mantra of love, peace and meditation? Other times, the lighting is a total miss, not hitting the actors faces, even with reflected lighting. There’s a scene that seems to highlight the steps and the shadow with a blurred Jeff in the foreground. Chris Hemsworth comes through the door, but the lighting and camera focus is on the opposite corner. I almost expected someone to walk down the steps into that bright light for a fashion pose.  The Spiderhead building reminds me of that 1991 concrete bunker that the clothing store Esprit had in. But was this the right choice or the only choice they had due to pandemic restrictions?

To a certain extent, the static staging has become a familiar trait of pandemic produced films, but the choices of color scheme and lighting were likely not pandemic problems.

Hemsworth can, under the right conditions, play sinister. He was sexy, sleazy and sinister in the 2018 Neo-noir thriller “Bad Times at the El Royale.” He can also handle comedy as he has shown in “Ghostbusters” and even as Thor. Teller was believable in his role as the hot shot Top Gun naval aviator in “Top Gun: Maverick,” but he has little to work with here. The script attempts to be intellectual, but isn’t particularly clever.

Director Joseph Kosinski has a tendency to showcase humans as insignificant against a background as shown in “Oblivion,” another film that also used the Apple clinical white aesthetic at times. In that film as well,  the faces are darkened but in focus as the sky or city dominates. But I don’t feel that’s what is happening on “Spiderhead.” “Oblivion” was lensed by Academy Award-winning Claudio Miranda (“Life of Pi”). Miranda also is credited with the cinematography for “Spiderhead.” I found “Oblivion” also too static in certain sequences. This feeling completely contrasts the pulsing rhythm and on point soundtrack of Kosinski’s “Top Gun: Maverick.” Miranda also served as cinematographer there, but the lighting, color scheme and editing came together as a cohesive whole. I suspect “Spiderhead” was attempting to find a balance between contrasting music and the undercurrent of evil, but that doesn’t really happy.

“Spiderhead” is not going to inspire scientists (It  shouldn’t.) or nightmares (It should.)  or questions about medical experimentation and the prison system (It should.).  Let’s hope that Hemsworth will get a better opportunity to bring back his sexy sinister side, maybe even match up with another MCU superhero gone bad like Chris Evans in his “Knives Out” persona. Those two could make us all want to cross over to the darker side of humanity. “Spiderhead” made its world premiere at Cannes. The film is currently streaming on Netflix.

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