Directed by John Kosinksi and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
John Kosinski is very clearly a plan guy. After filming Top Gun: Maverick in 2018–2019, John Kosinski went right into filming Spiderhead. I imagine, he met screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (of Deadpool fame) somewhere in some ivory tower I like to imagine in Hollywood and said, hey are they planes in this film cause you know I have experience with planes. As Reese and Wernick confirm that there are indeed plane scenes in the film, Kosinski hastily signs on to be the director.
From its outset, the film intends to build a world and give off a vibe.
It starts with a scene of a character Ray, played by Stephen Tongun laughing uncontrollably while being told some jokes but also ridiculous anecdotes such as the fact that he is serving four consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole.
Then it moves over to mad scientist Steve Abnesti played by Chris Hemsworth smiling and glee and placing a gold star onto the camera. Then we see Abnesti in a plane as we hear “The Logical Song” by Supertramp play as a biplane flies into what we later learn is a prison, called Spiderhead.
The premise of the film based on George Saunders's Escape from Spiderhead is about a genius scientist Steve Abnesti who experiments on prisoners in a futuristic environment. While the premise is very interesting, it seems the film can either go two ways: masterpiece or terrible.
In the end, it doesn’t go, either way, I would argue that at some point, I thought it was going in the direction of a masterpiece. While many filmgoers and critics are not really fans of slow philosophical diatribes, I find myself completely enamoured by these types of films, if they have something to say. The first 40 minutes of the film follow this structure, allowing the audience to settle in for what seems like an interesting sci-fi character examination of the human mind.
However, the interesting questions the film asks of the prison system in the United States, of the position of pharmaceutical companies, and of ethics in science, seem to all fall a notch short. While every scene with Hemsworth in it is routinely hilarious and fascinating, when Hemsworth is not in scenes, the film seems to lose its way.
The premise reminded me very much of Claire Denis’ 2018 film, High Life. The film has a very similar premise with a scientist doing experiments on prisoners in a distant prison on a distant island, the film asks what it means to be human. While Spiderhead seems to want to ask what is the human mind, it seems to lose its way in many many other stories along the way.
One story that seems very fascinating is the story of Jeff, played by Miles Teller, dealing with the guilt of his crimes. However, with both Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett, they seem to be playing half-baked characters. Not to say that the characters themselves aren’t interesting, they are, it just seems like we are not allowed to actually get into their minds.
Outside of the examination workshop, and away from the drugs (Darkenfloxx, N-40, and Laffodil) the film falters when asking what makes up our minds. Darkenfloxx is a drug that causes massive pain, both physical and mental to the lab rat in this case and causes them to be scared of things such as a stapler. N-40 is the love drug. A drug that makes you fall in love with the person in front of you immediately, while Laffodil is a drug that makes you laugh uncontrollably.
These drugs and the premise should make the film far more interesting but around an hour in, the film for some reason makes the decision to go in a far too easy direction. Becoming a mystery story rather than a psychological or philosophical trip. But it’s not like it is an interesting mystery. It becomes quite simple, and straightforward. Far too clean. It also ends in such a rushed and hectic manner that at around the 1 hour and 30-minute mark, you can’t believe it’s about to end.
While I don’t believe it’s easy to adapt any story, nonetheless a short story, it seems like Reese and Wernick had far more story to tell and many more ideas but that they almost stopped themselves playing in the sandbox.
When I read the original story after watching the film, I became disheartened by what it could be. While without a doubt extremely difficult to adapt, the end would’ve been far more compelling and would’ve strayed from the traditional good vs evil battles that exist in our film culture currently.
All in all, a deeply enjoyable watch at some times, even though it may sometimes not live up to the great films that these filmmakers have made previously; but you know, if you like planes definitely check it out!
It just so happens that I’m a train guy though.