by Nuha Hassan
Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead uses the concept of prison to depict a sense of self-forgiveness in the form of a sacrifice. It’s a different kind of prison system and one where they give a surprising amount of freedom — or the illusion of freedom — in exchange for being subjected to experimental pharmaceutical treatments. It is based on George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,’ first published in the New Yorker, and written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool). While the concept of this reimagined prison system sounds interesting, Spiderhead doesn’t hold everything together.
At the research centre, Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a scientist who wears horn-rimmed glasses, follows the orders of the protocol committee and hopes to cure the world’s problem through experimental drugs using incarcerated prisoners. The inmates are not locked inside their rooms and don’t wear orange jumpsuits, and in exchange for this freedom, they must wear a surgical implant on their lower backs, so Steve and his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio) can administer the drug doses throughout the experiments. In the experiments, the subject — or the inmate — is placed in a room and Steve gets consent from his subjects by making them say “I acknowledge,” before raising the dosage via a smartphone app. These drugs have the ability to control their laughter (Laffodil), force them to express what they are thinking (Verbulance), and make them think terrifying thoughts (Darkenfloxx). One of Steve’s favourite subjects, Jeff (Miles Teller), is subjected to a lot of experiments, some of which are weird and uncomfortable for him. But when he is repeatedly asked to administer Darkenfloxx to the inmates, he hesitates because he knows what it can do to people. Jeff suspects that Steve has an ulterior motive and finally learns the truth about the pharmaceutical drugs.
Historically, prison systems in America have used incarcerated inmates as test subjects without their consent and used coercive methods to take part in the experiments. According to Harvard Civil Rights, the US spent decades conducting public health studies and from 1946 to 1948, they purposely infected Guatemalan prisoners with syphilis. The article states, “Until the early 1970s, a wide variety of pharmaceutical research was conducted on prisoners, and by 1972, “more than 90% of investigational drug toxicity testing was conducted on prisoners.” In the 1950s through the 1970s, biomedical experiments were conducted at Holmesburg Prison in Philadelphia, and some resulting in permanent injuries.” Nowadays, there are regulartory requirements to make sure that these unethical historical experiments never happen again. In Spiderhead, Steve is the head of Abnesti Pharmaceutical, which obtained got federal approval to experiment with these drugs on inmates in a high-security prison and research centre. There is an open-door policy in the centre and Steve presents himself as a welcoming and friendly scientist, whose motive is to help these prisoners find the cure to all of their problems. But behind this exterior, he manipulates and controls his inmates’ emotions and feelings to administer the doses under the illusion of choice and freedom.
The narrative structure of Spiderhead works really well in the first act. Even Hemsworth’s cunning and devious portrayal of Steve, the mad scientist, holds everything together. However, as the movie nears the end, it ultimately doesn’t work. Once Jeff finds out the truth about the experimental drugs and Steve’s role in the whole research centre, the film gets lost. It leads nowhere, even though a few action sequences are shown at the end. Sometimes, it’s difficult to say what this movie is trying to achieve in the midst of a messy structure and the ethics of the prison system.
Hemsworth, known for playing Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, plays the devious character who dances to 80s pop music. He seems to have fun playing the role, so it is surprising to watch him play a manipulative character. He controls his facial expressions and keeps his character grounded and friendly enough to manipulate Jeff. Teller and Jurnee Smollet, who plays Lizzy — another important prisoner, chef and Jeff’s love interest — give an emotional performance that convinces the viewers of their character’s journeys and mistakes. Despite the elaborate concept of Spiderhead and Steve’s mission to control people’s emotions by using drugs, the movie seems to make the opposite point it was originally trying to make. In the end, it tells the viewers that people don’t need to be manipulated or pushed around to hurt others. With an action-packed, but rather lacklustre ending, the movie doesn’t know what to do after the first act. Kosinski and the writer raise a lot of questions, but they don’t seem to have any interest in answering them. Instead of writing a thought-provoking and unethical story, Kosinski loses his way.