The fortress glistens in the distance amidst the unnaturally clear waters like a rare jewel. When we’re first introduced to Spiderhead, we can see why director Joseph Kosinski is one of the best in the game. He captures “the ethereal in the ephemeral.” The sun never seems to set in this artificially cheerful bastion where Jeff, played by a winsome and vulnerable Miles Teller, and other inmates have offered themselves up as guinea pigs to a faceless corporation that’s experimenting with mood enhancing drugs. Based on The New Yorker short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders, this Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick adaptation makes use of the claustrophobic atmosphere by focusing on the physical, mental, and emotional limitations of our main characters. The dialogue never devolves into one-upmanship between Jeff and Abnesti. Rather, the focus is a burgeoning self-awareness for both. It’s not until Jeff experiences real love that he’s able to break free of his multitudinous levels of incarceration. Abnesti has no emotions, with or without the drugs. He’s a prisoner of his own mind, which is what ultimately defeats him.
Chris Hemsworth takes a convincing turn as villain Abnesti. As his sanity slowly unravels, he can no longer handle his role as the puppet master of this Plato’s Cave and Hemsworth’s slow burn is what gives the story its heft. His Abnesti is so narcissistic and unempathetic that he can’t believe that anyone can best him. His cat and mouse game with Jeff is one game that he can’t win, and he can’t admit defeat, He’s a Frankenstein monster run amok, and it takes someone with a pure heart, Jeff, to destroy his sandcastle.
At certain angles in the film, Teller looks eerily like Elvis. His throwback appearance buttresses Abnesti’s use of sunny throwback songs like Herb Albert’s Rise to keep the patients numb to what’s really going on. Everything old is new again, recycled to the point of futility.
Jurnee Smollett’s Lizzy is the catalyst for Jeff’s awakening. She plays her with vulnerability that matches Tellers’. When she confesses her deepest secret to Jeff and Abnesti, she’s attained a certain level of self-forgiveness and thus, freedom. Abnesti’s experiment backfires. Man is as unpredictable as his emotions. Abnesti feeds off prisoners’ guilt. He weaponizes it to subdue them and have them participate in his experiments. Once Jeff and Lizzy realize their feelings are real and they forgive themselves for their past transgressions, they’ve broken the spell of Abnesti’s deleterious hold.
Kosinski and Teller recently collaborated on the box office smash Top Gun: Maverick. Kosinski elicits raw emotion from Teller. One scene where Jeff is calling his girlfriend from the top of a mountain emphasizes how alone in the world he is. He only has himself to rely on. Kosinski’s directing fortifies the message of the film that no man is an island. Individuality and self-help can lead one to freedom but only with the true love of another person as the fuel for self-realization and personal victory. Spiderhead drops on Netflix on June 17, 2022.