Before “Top Gun: Maverick,” director Joseph Kosinski made “TRON: Legacy,” “Oblivion” and “Only the Brave.” It’s a filmography that is the epitome of “mixed-bag,” in terms of entertainment value, aesthetics and bottom line.
But count “Spiderhead,” his latest collaboration with his muse, Miles Teller (“Only the Brave,” “Maverick”), as a checkmark in his favor, even if it’s something of a slick quick-and-dirtyt for Netflix. It’s a mixed bag in itself, but squeezing Chris Hemsworth into an outside-the-box role in between “Thor” outings and having him face-off with Teller in a simple story with a high-end setting and “human choice” morality pays off.
Based on a short story that first appeared in The New Yorker, “Spiderhead” is “A Clockwork Orange” for the Age of Big Pharma. The premise — drugs can make the world a better place, modify feelings and behavior, improve society.
“The world needs our help, now more than ever,” Dr. Steve Agnesti (Hemsworth) preaches. And those in his “care” aren’t exactly in a position to disagree.
“Spiderhead” is a prison/”clinical trial facility” on a mountainous island paradise. The inmates, “selected” and incarcerated there by choice, have drug injection pump MobiPaks installed on their lower backs. And every so often, they’re brought in for a “test.”
“Drip on?” jocular Dr. Steve asks? “Acknowledge!” the guinea pigs reluctantly reply.
Everything can seem funny after this dosage, sexual attraction is guaranteed and heightened by that one.
The drugs have names like LuvActin (an aphrodisiac) and Verbaluce. That one makes the recipient more articulate and forthcoming.
Jeff (Teller) is one of the patients there. Flashbacks give us an idea of why he’s in prison. But Dr. Agnesti — “Call me Steve!” — can help him escape, make him see a grimy industrial park as a Fijian beach.
Still, Jeff is giving up what, Film 101 class? “Free will.” And he’s the first to realize that this narcotized “cure” or whatever it is meant to accomplish isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Not when he feels “the most normal” when he’s sharing chores with his cute fellow convict Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), but the drug tests are causing him to have sex with assorted partners in the one-way-mirror “lab.”
One thing that pops out of this is the stretch this part was for Hemsworth. Much of the dialogue has a creaky “better on the printed page than read aloud” quality.
“No other penal institution in the world boasts such a respectful relationship” between prisoners and those who imprison them.
But Hemsworth, taking extra hits of Red Bull between takes, rushes through them like a guy who finally gets to show-off his acquired American accent at top speed. Not every line sings, but he’s kind of a laugh tearing through them.
“Beautiful people get away with too much,” Agnesti gripes about the good-looking but always-tardy and testy inmate Heather (Wyomi Reed). “I say that having benefited from it myself, from time to time.”
You don’t say?
Teller is earnest and conflicted and carrying a sad burden, the memory of his “fateful night,” the one that put him in prison. What he really wants is a little “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”
“Is there a drug to make you forget s–t?” “Yeah, it’s called ‘old age.'”
As memory and guilt have a role in rehabilitation, we can see the logic in “not” wanting that in the pharmacopoeia here. But the script isn’t a deep dive into what constitutes rehabilitation (barely touched on), and only flirts with challenging the cynicism of allegedly “good” people who take jobs doing something their consciences should warn them are immoral.
“Deep” isn’t really Kosinski’s thing, after all.
The pleasures of this surface gloss are in the shocks, the moments things start going “too far,” and the mental, moral and physical sparring of Teller and Hemsworth, well-matched foes so long as Hunka-Hemsworth doesn’t have his hammer handy.
Rating: R for violent content, language and sexual content.
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett
Credits: Directed by Joseph Kosinski, scripted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, based on a short story by George Saunders. A (June 17) Netflix release.
Running time: 1:47