There is only one way to escape from Spiderhead in sly postmodern scamp George Saunders’ all-but-unfilmable short story “Escape From Spiderhead,” and it rhymes with skip-to-my-lou-icide. Unlike print fiction, where pretty much anything goes, movies that feature acts of self-harm must be very careful, since audiences have been known to emulate those same acts. Right up front, Netflix warns viewers of its woefully wrongheaded adaptation that the movie features such behavior. But if Netflix really cared about our well-being, why release a film so bad, we’d do practically anything to escape from “Spiderhead” ourselves?
No one would blame you for sampling it in the first place. Saunders is a wickedly funny author with more major writing prizes than Meryl Streep has Oscars. The tricky source material was translated by “Deadpool” duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who understand how to walk the line between outrageous and offensive, and then given to “Top Gun: Maverick” helmer Joseph Kosinski, who doesn’t. The Netflix logo may give you pause, but it also bears the imprimatur of The New Yorker Studios. Plus, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and a guy with tattoos covering half his body (Nathan Jones), big enough to eat the both of them.
Ta-dum! So you gave in and clicked Play, and right away something feels off. If you’re familiar with the short story, everything feels off. But for the vast majority of people — who don’t even bother to read the Netflix plot capsules, much less short stories that run in The New Yorker — “Spiderhead” the movie will be the first and only encounter they have with Saunders’ dark and practically deranged premise.
“Spiderhead” the movie takes place in a futuristic research facility, i.e., Spiderhead, where prisoners of serious crimes are offered an alternative to hard time: They can take part in a series of drug tests conducted by a sociopath named Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth). The drugs in question have tongue-in-cheek designer-pharmaceutical-sounding names, like Luvactin and Darkenfloxx, garnished with cutesy ™ symbols. Said trials use chemicals to manipulate human emotions and behavior: love and fear, honesty and obedience. Verbaluce stimulates one’s language centers. Vivistif works like Viagra.
Before Abnesti can dose his subjects with these mood-changing substances, they must verbally say the word “acknowledge.” But the real manipulator here is Abnesti, who bullies and cajoles his subjects into totally inappropriate situations. Situations like these — i.e., using Luvactin to make two disinterested parties jump each other’s bones, repeating the same test with various parties, then forcing one subject to choose which of his mates receives a potentially lethal dose of Darkenfloxx — are very hard to make funny when performed by real people.
Even if there were, Hemsworth is not the right actor for this role. Sure, we’ve seen him be funny before (playing the airhead assistant in “Ghostbusters,” for example), but the comedy here is supposed to come from how unbelievably callous this man is — that and the wildly unprofessional parameters of his experiments, which cross pretty much every ethical line imaginable. So it’s not enough for Hemsworth to pose and look cute, delivering in-on-the-joke lines like “Beautiful people get away with too much. I say that having benefited a few times myself.” Because there is no joke to be in on.
Reese and Wernick don’t get it. They think it’s featuring the song “She Blinded Me With Science” during experiments.
Kosinski doesn’t get it. He thinks it’s directing two Luvactin-pumped subjects to go at each other like a pair of oversexed Tex Avery cartoons, while the Swingle Sisters caterwaul alongside.
The actors don’t get it. They’ve been trained to find the reality in their roles, but Saunders’ sense of humor is pitched at such an unbelievable extreme, it would have been wiser to go full Peter Sellers with their performances.
Tonally, there’s no easy way to play Abnesti or his human guinea pigs, each of whom has been locked away for some truly heinous act — like infanticide, murder or licensing the rights for a George Saunders story to Netflix. All except Jeff (Teller), whose crime was its own punishment. Jeff drank and drove his car into a tree, killing his best friend. Kosinski shows the accident in a flashback, so overwrought with visual effects, it looks like a scene Baz Luhrmann left out of “The Great Gatsby.”
There’s a reason Kosinski and company decided to make Jeff more sympathetic than he was in the short story. In the short story, Jeff smashed his friend’s head in with a rock. But the film team is focused on that escape-from-Spiderhead idea. And they don’t think suicide would make for a happy ending.
In the movie, Spiderhead is a chic concrete bunker on a remote tropical island reached only by biplane. The architect clearly watched a few James Bond movies. But what that has to do with Saunders’ story is anybody’s guess.
Surely someone must have read the source material and realized the movie would be going in a very different direction. What direction would that be? Imagine the Michael Bay version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Or the Stanley Milgram study reinvented as an action movie, complete with badly staged fistfights and low-budget explosions.
Saunders’ story is amusing. Not his best, but certainly up to snuff with the other fiction that appears in The New Yorker. Amid the laughs, which are designed to make readers uncomfortable, Saunders aspires to better understand what drives certain human behavior. Could you make a drug that causes subjects to be happy or horny, submissive or depressed, with no lingering effects of that emotion? How is that different from what our bodies experience as love or pain?
But the instant you ask a group of actors to play the same scenario, it all falls apart. Kosinski is a gifted director, but his specialty is juggling human elements with complex visual effects. He is not cut out for this kind of comedy. His design choices are all wrong. The execution is tone deaf. And even Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione can’t salvage it (he couldn’t rescue Charlie Kaufman/George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” either).
And so we’re left with the icky feeling of watching people forced to act against their will, according to the drugs loaded in their MobiPaks™. We’re asked to believe that Abnesti might have installed the same apparatus on himself, that he’d leave the keys to his secret drawer for Jeff to access, and that everything the short story left unexplained can be untangled when Jeff looks inside said drawer. Impossible. Per the movie’s own wonky rules, we can choose not to acknowledge, at least.