TL;DR – scientist wants to create the ultimate drug by experimenting on convicted felons. Darkly comic in parts, kind of a thriller in others. Overall, doesn’t deliver on the potential it has.
Review (warning: spoilers)
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is the owner and founder of Abnesti pharmaceutical. He runs a penitentiary and research centre called Spiderhead, situated on an isolated island, that houses individuals that have committed crimes that range from robbery to manslaughter.
The setting and name of the facility should be enough to make any criminal pause at the idea of being used as a guinea pig to trial a series of drugs that are administered through a device (called a “MobiPak”) that is attached to your lower spine. The reasons why they agree is that the facility allows greater freedoms than state prisons. Inmates are allowed to wear what they want (no prison uniforms), roam the interior of the giant facility that houses a kitchen, dining, lounge and games area and serve their time without the fear of prison violence (more on this point in a minute). Both men and women are housed within Spiderhead and apparently there is nothing stopping them from developing relationships (romantic, sexual or otherwise).
There are no prison guards, no jail cells and no barred windows. No locks except the one that prevents you from leaving Spiderhead, and no need to be part of a gang within the penitentiary in order to obtain some level of protection from other gangs.
Abnesti and his assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), are the only ones who run Spiderhead, and if you’re wondering how they maintain law and order, it’s through the use of one of the drugs Abnesti pharma has created that instils a level of obedience in each person. Thus, circling back to the point about everyone inside not fearing prison violence.
However, as the film unfolds we discover that the individuals selected to reside in Spiderhead are not random and those that have been chosen have certain backgrounds, stories and circumstances that led them to be convicted of a crime that makes them suitable for the Spiderhead experiment. At least, the characters that are focused on are revealed to be people that have made horrific mistakes and have not chosen to live a life of crime.
We’re not talking mobsters, or serial killers, or psychopaths. We’re talking people who either misjudged their situation or were under some extreme emotional triggers that led them to act in tragic ways.
The main ‘inmate’ focused on is Jeff (Miles Teller) who was committed for manslaughter after driving his car (while intoxicated) at speed into a tree and killing the woman he loved and his good friend. Jeff now operates under a constant feeling of guilt and accepts being used as a guinea pig at Spiderhead because he thinks he deserves it.
Then there’s Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) who plays a mother who left her baby in her locked car in the heart of summer while she did a three-hour shift at Walmart. She is now a shell of her former self, forever tortured for having killed her own baby daughter.
The “mad scientist” character, Steve Abnesti, believes he can create a drug that will ensure crimes will never be committed. However, the way he convinces those in Spiderhead to participate in the experiment is under the guise of creating the ultimate “feeling good, love” drug. If everyone loves each other then there would be peace on earth.
There are other types of drugs that he tests. For example, one that causes your fears to override your reason; another that causes extreme mental and physical distress; another that causes you to express your thoughts in a verbose way; and yet another that makes you hallucinate that everything is beautiful when in reality it might be horrific. And again, he does this under the guise of testing the limits of these drug-induced emotions to supposedly achieve the ultimate “love” drug.
In fact, Steve is so willing to back his experiments that he has one of the MobiPaks attached to his own spine. Mind you, he only ever administers the good feeling drugs on himself… never the bad ones.
In reality, what Steve is seeking to achieve is not a love-for-everyone drug that will end wars the world over. What he is trying to develop is a drug (called Obediex) that will achieve unconditional obedience from the person who receives the drug. This includes a level of obedience that goes against the individual’s inherent nature. For example, if a person genuinely loves and cares for another and is given Obediex, then Steve wants to order them to harm the one they love. This is meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of Obediex and be the ultimate drug to allow remote control of another person.
Of course, when Jeff finds out Steve’s true intentions, which involves having Obediex administered to him so he will hurt Lizzy (a woman he has found to be as damaged as him and falls in love with), he seeks to call in the authorities and have the whole mad scientist lab shut down.
Whether Spiderhead is meant to be a cautionary tale (i.e., we all need to accept the feelings we experience and acknowledge their existence rather than attempt to get rid of them through drugs) or a satirical examination of how people experience base emotions, the film never delivers the emotional impact it strives for.
Director Joseph Kosinski appears to waver between creating a film that is darkly comic versus a grim mystery thriller. Several situations are shown where the love drug is administered, or the characters think it will be administered, leading to some quirky, off-beat humour. Other times it unleashes blood and violence in a way that is meant to be shocking or cause you to be on the edge of your seat. But neither story mechanisms packs a punch and at most, you will perhaps raise an eyebrow or produce a wry grin.
In the end, Spiderhead never manages to be anything other than predictable. Even when Steve attempts to escape aboard his seaplane with the last drug samples while his MobiPak (damaged in a fight with Jeff) causes all the different types of drugs to flood his system, you know he’s not going to get far. And sure enough, the drug that makes him see everything as beautiful when really it’s not causes him to fly into a mountain.
The top notch cast do a good job of engaging you at the beginning. Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller are both strong in their respective roles. But the movie flags by the halfway mark as you start questioning whether to see it through when you already know how it is going to end. If the movie went all-in as a black comedy, or all-in as a mystery thriller, it could have been far more engaging and riveting. Instead, Spiderhead meanders in a plot that doesn’t have enough meat on it and doesn’t know which way it wants to go.
5 out of 10