What would you do to wipe your slate of sins clean? That question lies at the heart of Spiderhead, the slick, sci-fi thriller from director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett that debuts June 17 on Netflix. (Read our Spiderhead review.)
Adapted from writer George Saunders’ 2010 short story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” the movie expands upon a near future scenario where Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) is the chipper warden of an isolated, experimental prison facility. Inside the Spiderhead bunker exists a select group of former correctional inmates who volunteered to reside in this relaxed community where they accept daily dosings of bespoke drugs that alter their emotional responses, which Abnesti then studies.
The scenario itself has shades of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, while updating that story’s physical human tinkering to our modern tech times where Abnesti’s drugs (with names like Verbaluce™ and Darkenfloxx™) have the potential to turn any of the inmates into monsters with nowhere to go.
Spiderhead was Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up project to Top Gun: Maverick and was shot in Australia during the height of COVID protocols in late 2020. Miles Teller, who plays study participant Jeff, tells IGN that the constraints of the production fed the claustrophobia of the film’s scenarios.
“We had to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room, and a bit of that cagey feeling we absolutely tried to inject into the film,” Teller says. “It really was almost a mirror to how everybody was living. You couldn’t have big scenes with a lot of extras and you couldn’t do certain things, so this was really a perfect project for the times.”
The Spiderhead environment is the carefully curated reality of Steve Abnesti, who runs the facility like a benevolent dictator. The character gives Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to play someone against type. He tells IGN that he looked to real life figures of power for inspiration.
“We talked about a lot of different tech-giant entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley types,” Hemsworth shares. “Also dictators through history and famous, powerful individuals. The running thread was there’s a huge amount of intellectual strength that this character has and he is manipulative due to understanding human behavior. But there’s a darker side there too, you know? There’s this massive ego, driven by a sort of naivete, conveniently, about the consequences of his actions.”
What Hemsworth delivers is a man defined by his unpredictability, which makes him entirely mercurial with his study participants. He’s nice one minute and then intensely passive-aggressive the next. “We wanted to not have it feel familiar or anything similar to what I had done, or any sort of traditional villain or traditional hero seen before,” Hemsworth adds. “Whenever it got into a space where it felt conventional, we just were trying to attack it from a different angle.”
Abnesti’s actions put characters like Jeff and program newcomer Lizzie (Smollett) on edge when they become increasingly uncomfortable with how the drug dosings make them feel or interact with others. Already suffering with the aftermaths of the crimes that put them in prison, their guilt and fear only deepens due to Abnesti’s moral conundrums.
Teller says Jeff is there because he wants to alieve how he feels about himself. “I think he really needed to buy into everything that Chris’s character is selling, And that’s why he kind of became the perfect specimen for Abnesti,” the actor assesses. “He wanted to reform. He wanted to feel like a better person and to somehow come through the other side. There’s a real darkness with Jeff, I think at the beginning of this story, and this facility and this program represents that light for him.”
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