Netflix and The New Yorker have combined their vast resources to produce an unbelievably abysmal two-hour work based on George Saunders’ short story titled “Escape from Spiderhead.” The film adaptation of the story, simply titled “Spiderhead,” directed by Joseph Kosinski and released last month, retells and somewhat recasts its source material. However, the creative team was handed a potential blockbuster with Saunders’ thought-provoking satire on a silver platter, and they botched it.
“Spiderhead” features Jeff (Miles Teller) as a patient at a health care facility. He receives medication through a remote-controlled injection system called a Mobi-Pak, attached directly to his body like an insulin pump. It soon becomes clear that this facility is, in fact, an experimental prison in which Jeff and his fellow inmates enjoy considerable freedoms (open doors, meals, fish tanks, espresso machines, sex, and more) in exchange for consenting to receive experiments. mind-altering drugs through their Mobi-Paks. Ultimately, they hope to be reformed and released despite the seriousness of their crimes and the length of their sentences.
There is no general, faceless nemesis like Huxley’s World State or Orwell’s Big Brother. Rather, there’s a man behind the curtain named Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), an aspiring Silicon Valley techie with his own half-hearted hopes of making the world a better place.
The Abnesti facility is called Spiderhead because the various rooms of the prison branch out from its control center like the legs of a spider. Abnesti, who insists that his inmates call him Steve, conducts his experiments from the control center while he drinks coffee, dressed in skinny jeans, a T-shirt and a blazer, like a well-bred millennial.
Either Hemsworth’s performance or the film’s poor writing leaves the audience wanting more from Abnesti, he never rises to villain status as he’s not a particularly interesting antagonist. Despite having nefarious research goals and profit motives, Abnesti’s character is unconvincing.
Years ago, in the heyday of the Hollywood studio system, hundreds of random movies were produced. If someone somewhere needed a project to work on, someone would just dust off an unused script, find a hired director with some downtime, round up some actors, and put them all together on an unused studio lot. “Spiderhead” feels like one of those movies; everything seems rushed.
Occasional errors in directing judgment can be forgiven, but it seems Kosinski wasn’t even trying. The Mobi-Paks looked like a GameCube stuck to the bottom of the inmates’ spine, and not a scene passed where disbelief was reliably suspended. Any semblance of dystopian gravity is ruined by the soundtrack, which tries to unsettle you with Doobie Brothers and Hall & Oates, and the opening and ending credits feature cartoony pink font.
Mystified by the nuances of Saunders’ story, the screenwriters prop the film up on clichés. Abnesti is killed in a fireball, Jeff keeps the girl, and the two lovingly sail off into the sunset together at the end.
The flat laziness of this ending is very different from Saunders’ original ending. In his account, Jeff commits suicide rather than administer a pain-inducing drug to another inmate while Jeff explains from beyond the grave that he is finally happy because now he can never commit murder again. The film doesn’t even flinch at such shock; it carries all the outward aspects of Saunders’ story and none of the heart of it.
Max Bindernagel is an English teacher. He writes from Washington, DC.