In real life, there would probably be no shortage of people willing to commit crimes if it resulted in being given free reign to wander around a minimum-security prison and receive psychedelic drugs administered by Chris Hemsworth. So it’s not too much of a stretch to go along with the imaginative premise of Netflix’s new, nearly unclassifiable film starring the MCU veteran along with Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett.
Based on a short story by George Saunders, Joseph Kosinski’s Spiderhead could be categorized as sci-fi, except its central conceit isn’t all that far removed from our “better living through chemistry” reality. It’s a thriller at times, but also a wickedly funny dark comedy. And it features a nostalgia-inducing yacht rock soundtrack that slyly comments on the action.
Hemsworth, wearing wire-rimmed glasses to establish his character’s intellectual bona fides, plays Steve Abnesti, a scientist who runs a state-of-the-art penitentiary in which the inmates aren’t locked behind bars or forced to wear orange jumpsuits. In exchange for their relative freedom, they each have surgical implants in their backs through which Abnesti and his devoted assistant (Mark Paguio) can administer mind-altering drugs in a series of experiments. Abnesti seemingly plays it strictly by his rules, making sure that his subjects use the words “I acknowledge” so that they’re technically operating with their own free will.
Free will, however, doesn’t figure into the results. Infused with the appropriate drug, the subjects engage in programmed responses, such as suddenly and wildly humping each other after receiving “Luvactin.” The drug names are part of the fun, with “Darkenfloxx” creating terrifying thoughts, “Phobica” reducing someone to behaving as if a stapler is the most frightening thing in the world, “Verbaluce” promoting more expressive language, and “Laffodil” acting like, you guess it, laughing gas.
One of Abnesti’s favorite subjects is Jeff (Miles Teller, working with Kosinski for the third time, most recently in a little film you may have heard of called Top Gun: Maverick), incarcerated for manslaughter after a drunken car accident in which his best friend was killed. The two men share a certain bond, although Jeff draws the line when he thinks he’s about to get injected with the love drug along with a hulkingly massive, heavily tattooed male inmate (Nathan Jones, as funny as he is fearsome).
It isn’t hard to tell where the story is going. Abnesti further reveals himself to be a mad scientist, although not one without a sense of humor: “That Nobel’s not going to win itself,” he comments while preparing one of his experiments. Things eventually begin to go awry as he seeks to more fully control his human guinea pigs, with one of his female subjects (Tess Haubrich) committing suicide after an injection. “It wasn’t her finest moment,” Abnesti admits. Jeff becomes increasingly determined to turn the tables, especially when the experiments begin to threaten a fellow prisoner (Jurnee Smollett) with whom he’s formed an intense personal connection.
The film doesn’t fully succeed in navigating its stylistic twists and turns, feeling all too familiar by the time it reaches its action-packed final act. But it’s imaginative fun along the way, thanks to the audacious premise and a clever screenplay by Rhett Teese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, Zombieland) that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Teller and Smollett deliver grounded, emotionally committed performances that keep us fully invested in their sympathetic characters’ plights. Hemsworth, however, goes for baroque. It may not have been the most appropriate casting, since the actor looks less like a scientist than a perfect human specimen created in a lab. But much as he does as Thor in the Marvel movies, he plays against his physicality with disarming deadpan humor that makes him surprisingly relatable. When his Abnesti does an ebullient solo dance in his private quarters, you’re almost rooting for him to win that desired Nobel Prize.
Adding to the fun are the ironic musical selections, including Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams” and Poco’s “Crazy Love,” that will have Boomers singing along. And let’s just say that you’ll never hear Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Silence” the same way again.