‘Spiderhead’ Can’t Make up Its Mind About Tone but Chris Hemsworth Brings Strong Villainy

Some actors get so entrapped by their blockbuster personas that it becomes hard to imagine them as anything else. The one true merit of the Netflix thriller “Spiderhead,” is that it lets us get to see Chris Hemsworth in a whole new light. Usually known as Marvel’s Thor or breaking necks in throwaway action movies, here Hemsworth gets to play a selfish manipulator who is most dangerous for how he wishes to bend science to his will. He’s a villainous surprise in a movie that otherwise amounts to some confused plotting and tones. This attempt at a brain teaser by Joseph Kosinski is a curious second serving from the director, who has been dominating the box office for weeks now with his exhilarating “Top Gun: Maverick.” It’s good to see a big-budget director aim for something small. When it works, “Spiderhead” develops some convincing atmosphere, it’s just that its approach doesn’t know if it wants to make us laugh or freak out.

The movie is based on a short story, “Escape from the Spiderhead,” by acclaimed writer George Saunders, who can be brilliantly funny while this movie is most certainly not. Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a corporate sociopath running a remote island fortress where convicts are given a chance at better living. In return for their comfortable arrangements, they must participate in a series of drug tests being conducted by Abnesti and his assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio). Their chief guinea pig is Jeff (Miles Teller), who has been serving time for a drunken car crash that killed his friend. Abnesti administers doses of specific drugs through high-tech patches embedded into the subjects’ backs. Each drug helps Abnesti and Verlaine guide and manipulate the very moods and sensations of the participant. Jeff is starting to suspect there is a darker agenda at play here, which he desperately tries to figure out when fellow prisoners-turned-experiments like Heather (Tess Haubrich), start really going crazy. Jeff is also growing very close to Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), but their bond will come under threat by Abnesti’s obsession with perfecting his pharmaceutical aims.

Hemsworth, and also to a degree Teller, manage to stand out above a movie where the filmmakers don’t seem to understand the style of the source material. Kosinski basically tries to film a dark comedy as a straight, brooding dystopian drama. The cinematography is by Claudio Miranda, who filmed “Top Gun: Maverick” for Kosinski as well as the director’s visually stunning, less respected “Tron: Legacy.” Miranda turns Abnesti’s base of operations into a cold, detached space that combines corporate aesthetics with the functions of a prison. Everyone may have nice rooms and good meals, but in reality they are all under the thumb of Abnesti. What his drugs do becomes all too apparent when he manipulates doses and essentially guides Jeff and Heather into having wild sex. That particular drug is called Vivistif. The scene has the potential to be morbidly hilarious with Hemsworth leering through the glass like a mad scientist delighting in what his creations can do. But it’s filmed with the look and editing of an unnerving thriller. The same lopsided tone keeps happening in other scenes, as when Jeff suspects he might be manipulated into having sex with a big, mean, tattooed subject.

Dystopian satire needs to lay down the rules from the first scene. “Spiderhead” takes a while to explain what’s even going on before settling on a clearer plotline. The performances capture the movie’s imbalance. Hemsworth is selfish, self-assured and plays with the Elon Musk meets Dr. Frankenstein appeal the character needs. Miles Teller barely smiles during the entire movie, playing one of his more familiar, stiff roles where he always looks confused or hurt. He seems to be on vacation after flying those fighter jets in “Maverick.” There’s not enough space given to his emerging relationship with Lizzy, at least to the level that we would understand why later he’ll breathlessly say, “I love you.” Once again, the most entertaining moments are Abnesti coercing and convincing his prisoners this experiment is for their own good. What Jeff later discovers could have also been material for a wicked takedown of big pharma. Instead it gets too caught up in the show attempting to drop shocking twists. The ending goes for satirical slapstick involving speedboats and plane crashes that lands very oddly, this is because the rest of the movie hasn’t strived to be funny, just disturbing. “Spiderhead” has the makings of a good sci-fi parable, it just has to decide which one and with what attitude.

Spiderhead” begins streaming June 17 on Netflix.