Imagine a world where second chances are granted. A world where science and narcissism can erase your biggest mistake. According to Netflix’s latest dystopian nightmare, “Spiderhead,” that world is possible. “Spiderhead” is a two-hour long fantasy film with an all-star cast that includes Miles Teller, Chris Hemsworth and Jurnee Smollett. Although a promising concept, “Spiderhead’s” shot at selling a dystopian mind fog slips through the cracks with strange pacing and an anticlimactic ending.
“Spiderhead” opens with promise as an assumed test subject inhabits a fancy lab. The location isn’t groundbreaking for dystopian films, but the island hides the expansive Spiderhead lab that is run by the eerily friendly Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) and his partner, Mark Verlaine (Mark Paguio).
Soon, the main protagonists, Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), are introduced as friends with an unspoken romantic chemistry existent between the two. The plot presents itself early on as a light-hearted take on scientists testing unknown chemicals on people. Of course, those people just so happen to be prisoners so the inhumane testing persists without consequence.
The first act of the film is slightly comical as Jeff goes through a series of strange tests with chemicals named “Verbaluce” and “N-40.” “Verbaluce” increases sensitivity with colors and vibrations in the air while “N-40” ignites passion towards another person that results in immediate sex. The tone takes a turn as Jeff is forced to give the order to test the chemical “Darkenfloxx” on another inmate.
“Darkenfloxx” is supposed to be an extremely dangerous chemical that leads another inmate to eventually kill herself after the dosage becomes too powerful. Once Steve and Mark rush out of the room, Jeff discovers Steve’s notebook. He’s horrified to find that Steve isn’t just a scientist running tests, he’s the crooked founder of the organization known as “Abnesti”.
At the climax, Jeff switches out his chemical tubes that are embedded in his back, and finds a way to up the dosage to Steve’s pack. Jeff is then able to control him and convince Mark to call the police. In the final scene, Jeff and Lizzy are able to outrun the police and bodyguards and escape on a boat.
What makes “Spiderhead” disappointing is that it had so much untapped potential to create a horrifying world. When compared to some of the popular dystopian films and television shows, like “Upload,” “The One,” and “Omniscient,” “Spiderhead” had a unique comical tone that added to the narcissism of Steve Abnesti’s character. However, the actual plot and character development fell flat.
There are brief flashbacks to Jeff’s past that show how his drunk driving resulted in the death of his best friend and girlfriend. Steve also opens up briefly about how his father abandoned him at foster care when he was a child. While these moments were heartbreaking, the film does little to build off these foundations and forge an emotional connection with the viewer.
Instead, Steve’s character is out of touch with how awful his testing is. His narcissism disconnects him from the inmates and he relies on overly friendly tendencies in hopes of building a false sense of trust. Steve still has an interesting purpose: create a drug that can control people based on their own trauma. This trauma could have been more fleshed out if the film’s pacing was better.
The other characters also seem to be merely placeholders. Since dystopian worlds often rely on comprehensive backstories to make the protagonist’s journey coherent, “Spiderhead ” feels empty amid its incomplete backgrounds. A perk of the film is that the plot toys with the idea of redemption after mistakes. Most of the inmates at the Spiderhead laboratory have killed people, yet they’re allowed to experience genuine humanity. They’re also given their own rooms and the privilege to roam wherever they please.
“Spiderhead” does technically have a cool world inside the lab, but there’s no hint at what the real world looks like, or what year it is. The rules of the assumed dystopian world only exist in the lab.
The missed opportunities and lack of stakes in “Spiderhead” make for a partial dystopian tale. The film does a great job of questioning morality, however. The idea of forgiveness and judging who should be allowed to suffer was a daring take, and it’s not far off from the morality juggling that is taking place in our current society.
“Spiderhead” is available to stream on Netflix.
By Adia Carter