Movies

Spiderhead Is Missing What Made the Story Great

A dark fable about corporate obedience gets Miles Teller and Chris Hemsworth—and loses its teeth.

A blond man in a suit and glasses stands thoughtfully, hand to chin, in front of a winding spiral staircase
Chris Hemsworth in Spiderhead. Netflix

This article contains spoilers for Spiderhead.

There are good reasons why Spiderhead—Joseph Kosinski’s Netflix adaptation of the great George Saunders short story, “Escape from Spiderhead”—is the only feature film based on the Booker Prize-winning author’s work. Saunders’ everyman characters struggle to live decent lives under the thumbs of indifferent institutions, which ought to make for an ideal movie plot because who can’t identify with that? But entertainment conventions demand that our heroes rebel, fight back, and then light out for the territories, as if injustice can be eluded with a change of scenery. Saunders is more honest about the likelihood of any of us getting out, but his artistry lies in his ability to wring dark humor out of sinister and often hopeless situations, the ironic contrast between corporatespeak and the routine cruelties it covers up, the ways language fails to measure the depth of our experience.

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Among Saunders  many early jobs (as a doorman, doing oil company construction in Sumatra, in a slaughterhouse), he worked writing the reports of scientists testing new drugs for a pharmaceutical company, an experience that continues to be reflected in his fiction. When I interviewed Saunders in 2000, he recalled the “deadpan language” the scientists used to recount the torments visited on lab animals during research on cancer treatments. “There was this one monkey,” he said, “that no matter how much they gave him, it had no effect on him whatsoever. He was the Christ monkey. He had a certain dignity. Of course in the end, no matter what, they always kill them. But it was an incredibly moving narrative.”

That anecdote, told from the point of view of the monkey, is a Saunders’ short story in a nutshell, and not so different from the plot of “Escape from Spiderhead,” in which the narrator, Jeff, an incarcerated felon played by Miles Teller in the film, agrees to serve as a subject in a series of experiments using drugs that control human emotion. The drugs can make people more appreciative of natural beauty and better able to articulate their thoughts. They can also make people fall briefly but madly in love with whoever happens to be in the room. In a Jeremy Bentham-style panopticon, the head researcher, Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), sits in “Control,” a hub-like room at the center of a ring of observation rooms in which convicts like Jeff undergo the effects of drugs with names like Verbaluce and LuvInclyned (Luvactin in the film).

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To evaluate the lasting effects of the latter, Abnesti orders Jeff to choose which of two women he was once artificially enamored with will receive a dose of something called Darkenfloxx. That drug inflicts excruciating emotional pain, as Jeff knows all too well from having once been given it himself. As with all dosings in Spiderhead, the inmates must verbally consent to the proceedings by saying “Acknowledge.” When Jeff shows no preference for saving either woman, the experiment is deemed a success and neither gets Darkenfloxx. But later, Abnesti calls Jeff in to explain that these results aren’t good enough. Now they—the unseen board whom Abnesti says he takes his orders from—want to administer the drug to one of the women while Jeff describes his response under the tongue-loosening influence of Verbaluce.

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At first, Spiderhead follows this storyline closely, and with a stinging visual wit. In the film, the lab is a brutalist concrete outpost on an unspoiled island. The inmates live comfortable lives in private rooms, eating nectarines and prosciutto and playing arcade games in a common room that unsettlingly resembles a student cafeteria. Abnesti, played by an improbably glamorous and ebullient Hemsworth, practices an open-door policy, reminding his subjects that their presence in the facility is a privilege they pay for by consenting to have “MobiPaks” filled with different colored vials of drugs attached to the smalls of their backs. The scientists adjust their dosages with smartphone apps that look just like the ones that control Nest thermostats. The drugs may still be in the testing stage, but this makes it easy to imagine a world in which everyone walks around fine-tuning their moods on their phones all day.

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Soon, however, it becomes obvious that this film won’t have the courage of Saunders’ story. The filmmakers have given Jeff a love interest, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). As soon as Jeff says he doesn’t want to see either of the two other women he’s been paired with get zapped with Darkenfloxx, even though he doesn’t feel especially protective toward either one, you know that eventually Abnesti will order him to agree to the dosing of Lizzy. The experiment will be reduced to a dumb test of romantic love. There will be an easily identifiable bad guy who’s to blame for everything. There will be a triumphant turning of the tables, there will be fight scenes and a chase, and a closing shot of perfect freedom. And soon enough, there is.

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The film lacks the short story’s nerve in another respect as well. It waters down Jeff’s criminal past, making him guilty of manslaughter rather than murder. And he feels terrible about it, so he’s not such a bad guy despite being a convict, see? In Saunders’ story, Jeff kills another man during a drunken brawl when the humiliation of possibly losing a fight in front of everyone he knows tips him into a stupid rage. (In the movie, he drives drunk and slams into a tree, killing two passengers, including his own wife.) “I don’t even know why I did it,” he admits. “It was like, with the drinking and the being a kid and the nearly losing, I’d been put on a drip called, like, TemperBerst or something.” Sometimes human impulses are as arbitrary, overwhelming and destructive as Spiderhead’s drugs.

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When Jeff refuses to participate in the administration of Darkenfloxx to a second woman, Abnesti tries to convince him by telling him the terrible crimes she’s in for. But as Saunders’ Jeff puts it, whether a person is “bad” or not, whether he’s in love with them or not, doesn’t affect his resistance to the Darkenfloxx experiment. “I just didn’t want to do that to anyone,” he realizes. “Even if I didn’t like the person very much, even if I hated the person, I still wouldn’t want to do it.” It’s easier, after all, to suffer for the people we love than for the sake of flawed strangers.

The movie turns Abnesti into a rogue scientist, an individual whose schemes can be thwarted by exposure, but the Abnesti of the short story is just a middle man, part of a system that can’t be overthrown because it’s everywhere. In an absurd rush at the end to reassure the audience that everyone will be fine, the movie delivers the breathless news that both Jeff and Lizzy have already served their time, even as Abnesti’s disillusioned assistant arrives at the lab with the police—not a positive development in any Saunders short story I can imagine, but treated here like the advent of the cavalry. Then the villain is neatly taken out by the malfunctioning of his own device, as Jeff and Lizzy zoom off on a speedboat toward a brand-new life.

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The Jeff of Saunders’ short story meets a more plausible but harsher fate. After he refuses to consent to the experiment, Abnesti steps out to get a vial of another drug that will render him compliant. (In the movie, Abnesti has been trying and failing to devise a drug to render people docile—which is just a bit of flattery for all the average folks out there who are convinced they’d have been conscientious objectors in the Milgram Obedience Experiment. Milgram didn’t even need drugs to prove otherwise!) Jeff decides that the only way out is to commit suicide by ODing on Darkenfloxx himself. As grim as this ending sounds, Saunders makes it transcendent, a true escape. Yes, the monkeys all get killed in the end, but at least this one goes out with his soul intact.

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