“Spiderhead,” which starts streaming on Netflix Friday, takes its title from its setting. The Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Center is more research center than penitentiary. With a spectacular waterfront location, it’s reachable only by seaplane or boat (the movie was shot in Queensland, Australia). The facility looks more like a fancy conference center with a touch of tropical resort. “No bars, no guards,” the chief researcher (Chris Hemsworth) says to an inmate, Jeff (Miles Teller). “The food, the Ping-Pong, the arcade games, [you’re] free to move around, within limits.” What’s not to like?
That’s where the research comes in. Inmates wear drug dispensers at the small of their back. The experimental drugs have striking names: Phobica, Verbaluce, Luvactin, Laffodil, Darkenfloxx. You definitely don’t want to fool with that one — or have that one fool with you. “This place can really mess with your head,” Jeff tells his lover, Lizzie (Jurnee Smollett), who’s also an inmate. He’s sure got that right. “The time to worry about crossing lines was — a lot of lines ago,” Hemsworth’s character says to his assistant (Mark Paguio).
The drugs are for behavior modification — serious behavior modification. “Spiderhead” has aspects of paranoid thriller, touches of prison drama, a sci-fi/futuristic side, even a bit of love story (hello, Jeff, hello, Lizzie). What it is is a movie about control. No, that’s not right: It’s a movie about control.
Watching “Spiderhead” is like being a silent participant in a debate about free will, behaviorism, and manipulation, only this particular debate comes with movie stars and primo production values. There’s voyeurism in the mix, too. Hemsworth’s character, Steve, and his assistant observe the effects of the drugs on inmates through a giant picture window. “We’re all here about choice, Mark,” Steve says to the assistant. That depends on how you define “choice,” of course.
“Spiderhead” has a pedigree, which helps account for its interest in ideas. George Saunders’s “Escape From Spiderhead” ran in The New Yorker in 2010. The movie differs from the short story in significant ways. The differences aren’t worth going into, other than to warn Saunders fans not to expect fidelity.
With its larger intellectual concerns and general coldness, you’d think the director was Alex Garland (”Ex Machina,” “Annihilation,” “Men”). Nope, it’s Joseph Kosinski, the director of “Top Gun: Maverick.” Kosinski has a real feel for wide open spaces, with or without Tom Cruise in the middle of them. The several establishing shots of the facility are nicely wow — you will recall that seaplane reference — and the way Kosinski makes various already-spacious interiors seem even larger adds to a general sense of dislocation.
“What you’re feeling is sometimes disquieting,” Steve says to Jeff and another inmate. He could just as well be addressing the audience. Part of that disquiet comes from storytelling. Indirection and lack of explanation prevail for much of the movie. It keeps viewers off balance. Various curious details add to the dislocation. Jeff is a very dab hand at an Etch A Sketch. The facility’s Brutalist architecture — the production designer, Jeremy Hindle, earned his salary — aligns all too well with the brutalist emotions. We glimpse an inmate reading a Saunders story collection — yes, the one with “Escape From Spiderhead.”
Part of the displacement is musical. Catchy, anodyne ‘70s and ‘80s pop predominates on the soundtrack: Herb Alpert’s “Rise,” “The Logical Song,” “She Blinded Me With Science,” “What a Fool Believes.” Actually, those last three do have a certain relevance, lyrically.
Kosinski isn’t the only “Top Gun: Maverick” connection. Teller is third billed there. His slightly squashed face makes him always seem offended — a sensible response, under the circumstances. With his off-kilter handsomeness, he could be Roy Scheider’s grandson, though in profile he looks like Mark Zuckerberg (talk about curious details). Teller gives a solid performance, as does Smollett. Hers is more impressive, given that her part is basically unwritten.
It’s Hemsworth’s movie — literally, since he’s one of the producers. He’s very much cast against type, and it works very well. There’s nothing nerdy or tweedy about this scientist. Squarish gold-rimmed glasses are the closest he comes to any lab-coat stereotype.
Hemsworth is very engaging — Steve seems as much like a motivational speaker, or game-show host, as scientific researcher — which makes him all the more sinister. Hemsworth is getting more and more Brad Pitt-ish: blond, outrageously good looking, subversively intelligent, refusing to be pigeonholed. His latest outing as Thor comes out next month. Spiderheard is a long way from Asgard.
In the movie’s final third some things start to get explained, other things happen, with a flurry of Big Reveals. Ideally, BRs elicit a response of “Oh!” or, better yet, “Of course!” The ones here are more of the “Really?” and “Uh-huh” variety. So, yes, “Spiderhead” really goes off the rails at the end. But at least it has rails to go off of, and they’re pretty good ones.
Directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick; based on the short story by George Saunders “Escape From Spiderhead.” Starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio. Streaming on Netflix. 107 minutes. R (violent content, language, sexual content, emotional intensity, suicide).
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.