Spiderhead is a film that will make you feel all the feelings while challenging your emotional reality.
Airing on Netflix, the film adaptation is based on “Escape from Spiderhead,” a short story by George Sanders and first published in The New Yorker. The sci-fi psychological thriller stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, and Jurnee Smollett.
Spiderhead follows a prisoner (Teller) in a state-of-the-art prisoner as he questions the purpose of the emotion-controlling drugs he’s testing for a pharmaceutical genius (Hemsworth).
Warning: Spoilers ahead.
A sinister sensation permeates the film from its initial shot. A prisoner rocks with laughter – first from silly jokes and then when told of his crimes and the length of his jail sentence. The prisoner’s emotion stays consistent (hilarity) even in the face of enormous tragedy. Dr. Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) and his assistant Mark (played by Mark Paguio) celebrate.
The prisoner’s emotional expressions first compliment, then contradict his reality. It’s a set-up for the film and the four types of drugs administered to Spiderhead prisoners at the base of their spine. Laffodil (G-46) produces uncontrollable laughter. Verbaluce (B-15) compels subjects to speak their minds or take things literally. Luvactin (N-40) enhances love and sexual attraction, with often shocking and sad consequences. Finally, Darkenfloxx (I-16) produces emotional torment and suicidal urges.
Sadly, the story of medical experiments on unwitting or involuntary subjects is rooted in historical fact. We owe much of American gynecological research to experimental cesarean sections, ovariotomies, and obstetric fistula repairs on Black and poor women. German medical physicians conducted painful experiments on Jewish prisoners, including mass sterilization.
Spiderhead challenges this and other tropes on their head. Here are a few of the most notable.
The Role of Consent
Spiderhead prisoners participate in drug trials to avoid harsher treatment in traditional prisons. They must verbally consent to receive the drug before beginning the experiment. But consent isn’t what it seems.
Dr. Abnesti shames, cajoles, and threatens Jeff (Teller) when he refuses to allow two female prisoners with whom he’s had drug-induced sex to be administered Darkenfloxx. In addition, Jeff and Lizzy (Smollett) confess to each other that they endure the worst of the drug trials because they believe deep down, they deserve the torment.
How often do we “agree” to something because of shame or because we somehow believe saying “yes” will make our lives easier?
Beware of Mr. Nice Guy
Hemsworth, as Dr. Absnesti, uses his charismatic jocularity, sincerity, and audacity for deadly aims. The heroic characteristics that endear audiences to his portrayal of Thor are used to manipulate, coerce, and ultimately murder.
Dr. Absnesti’s evil is thinly cloaked beneath civility, monochromatic suits, and aviator glasses. Banks would give him loans. Corporations would employ him and probably give him a bonus just for showing up to work slightly unshaven and completely smug.
Perhaps, it isn’t the Confederate-flag wearing redneck or Black teenager carrying an Arizona Iced Tea we ought to fear, but the nice guy who wants everyone to like him.
Forgiveness is an Inside Job
The audience later learns Jeff was imprisoned for killing his best friend and girlfriend in a drunk driving accident. Lizzy left her infant in the car while working a shift at Wal-Mart on a summer day.
Shame is the strongest yet unspoken emotion in Spiderhead. More than lust, laughter, or anguish, shame controls Jeff and Lizzy. As they break free from Spiderhead prison, after battling Dr. Absnesti and other prisoners, Jeff narrates that their emotional shackles will only be broken with self-forgiveness, which no drug can induce.
Although Jeff and Lizzy’s crimes are extreme, they must learn to forgive themselves. And so do we, for far lesser crimes of the heart and mind.
Spiderhead is an emotional roller coaster of a movie whose ending might make you say, “WTF?!” But it’s truly worth the ride.