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Spiderhead review – sleek but empty sci-fi bolstered by Chris Hemsworth

Joseph Kosinski's follow-up to Top Gun: Maverick lacks any of that film's flair or ambition, often fading away into background noise

After Netflix's recent, and very public, business decline, we've heard reports that their habit of giving carte blanche to genuine auteurs (see: Scorsese’s The Irishman or the upcoming Blonde from Andrew Dominik) will be axed. If true, it raises the question of what their film output might look like going forward, and Spiderhead seems to be the slightly underwhelming answer. It’s got the typical sleekness of their “non-prestige” original movies, along with an all-too familiar emptiness, papering over the cracks with a bankable star in the lead.

This star is Chris Hemsworth, playing sinister researcher Steve Abnesti at the sci-fi-esque Spiderhead prison complex, where convicts get cushy conditions and reduced sentences in exchange for taking experimental, mind-altering drugs that pump them full of lust, fear, pain, or whatever else is on the day’s menu. Through the eyes of Jeff (Miles Teller) – imprisoned for a lethal drunk-driving incident – we are introduced to the strange intricacies of the Spiderhead complex as he attempts to figure out the true motives of Abnesti and the unseen council he seems to answer to.

The script, from Deadpool writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, keeps this plot bouncing along at a mostly engaging place, but there are moments where Spiderhead’s origins as a short story (published in The New Yorker) become glaringly obvious. There’s a decent amount of scenes that feel like they’re simply stalling for time and the ending, changed from the source material to be more typically climactic and cinematic, is weirdly rushed and unexciting.

That’s not to say that there’s no fun to be had with Spiderhead, and all the early experiment scenes are genuinely intriguing as we figure out what each drug does and how the various residents of the facility respond to them, but the central story is never as compelling as these one-off moments. Hemsworth is engaging, too, clearly having fun in his villainous role, and his almost-inhuman handsomeness lends itself well to the sort of facades that Abnesti, as a borderline sociopathic tech-bro, has to put on.

Teller, though, could do this role in his sleep, and actually sort of does in a lethargic performance, while Jurnee Smollett struggles to make much of her love interest role as Jeff’s fellow convict Lizzy. What will hold your attention more than the cast, though, is the scenery. The facility itself is nicely designed, though hardly an innovative take on the near future, but the exteriors are where Spiderhead really comes to life, breathtakingly gorgeous coastal vistas that look enormous even on a laptop screen.

It’s only out in this natural beauty that director Joseph Kosinski captures any of the visual flair that you can currently see on the big-screen in his superlative Top Gun: Maverick, with most of Spiderhead’s direction otherwise pretty pedestrian. This is one of those Netflix movies that seems in part designed to be watched as background noise while you check your phone or make dinner, serviceable entertainment that is too light on ambition to make any real impression.

Spiderhead is released on Netflix on 17 June.

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