Spiderhead review – Netflix’s prison-experiment fable is going nowhere

Here is a rather self-conscious sci-fi satire, directed by Joseph Kosinski and adapted by Deadpool screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese from George Saunders’s New Yorker short story Escape from Spiderhead, published in the collection Tenth of December – which someone in this film is actually shown reading, an unbearably smug piece of brand cross-promotion.

Miles Teller plays Jeff, a convict who some time in the future has been given the chance to serve his term in the relatively cushy Spiderhead unit for experimental psychology, run by the oleaginous Dr Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth). Jeff is there on condition that he, like all the other specially chosen lab–rat prisoners, consents to have various hi-tech drugs flooded into his system from a special unit fixed to his lower back: drugs to make him irrationally happy or sad or horny (in the company of a similarly doped prisoner), while Dr Abnesti and his increasingly unhappy assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) look on from behind the two-way mirror. And in a Stanford-type refinement of cruelty, Dr Abnesti will also invite Jeff back to this observation deck and monitor his undrugged reactions on being told to choose which of two prisoners behind the glass gets the “pain” treatment.

Jeff’s relationship with another prisoner Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) will provide the movie’s crisis point and we will finally discover the full truth about why Jeff is in prison after a cheatingly fudged flashback scene. There is some fetishistic interest in the way Dr Abnesti administers all these dosages from his smartphone, though this hi-tech touch makes a certain vitally important old-fashioned tatty leather-backed file-binder a little bit implausible in this brave new world. A nice, creepy performance from Hemsworth, with Teller gamely going along with the script, but having stretched out the story idea to feature-film length, the film doesn’t really give the sense that it knows where it is going.

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