Joseph Kosinski is having quite a good spring. The 48-year-old Milwaukeean directed the critically-adored box office smash “Top Gun: Maverick,” which will likely receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a huge rarity for action flicks.
The success of the film instantly resulted in him being catapulted on to Hollywood’s helmer A-list. From this point forward, he can make whatever kind of movie he wants, and it lends great credence to the phrase “timing is everything.” More on that in a bit.
Based on the 2010 dystopian short story “Escape From Spiderhead” by George Saunders, “Spiderhead” is a mixed genre salad, adapted for the screen by the team of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick.
The writers of both the “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” franchises, Reese and Wernick infuse their scripts with loads of knowing, self-aware black humor which doesn’t so much complement the darker dramatic elements as it enhances them.
In one scene, a character is shown reading “Tenth of December,” the Booker Prize-winning collection of short stories by Saunders which includes “Escape from Spiderhead.”
Chris Hemsworth has a ball playing Steve Abnesti, the warden-overseer-administrator at the “Spiderhead Penitentiary & Research Center,” a facility housing convicts who have volunteered to be subjects of psychological experiments in lieu of doing “hard” time in traditional prisons.
Everyone has their own room and the sprawling shared living space resembles more a museum than a hospital or a halfway house. The premise and surroundings immediately reminded me of the lyric “did you exchange a walk-on part in the war for a lead role in a cage” from the 1975 Pink Floyd song “Wish You Were Here.”
This applies to no one better than Jeff (Miles Teller), an unassuming sort whose crime is revealed in three fragmented flashbacks, the last not coming until the third act. Harboring tankard ships full of guilt and remorse, Jeff is a favorite of Steve’s (who hates to be addressed by his surname), mostly because he feels nothing done to him here could possibly be worse than what he did on the outside.
Acknowledge or Else
A typical session involves two “residents” (residents, not inmates) in a room sitting opposite of each other with Steve and his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) requesting their permission to start, which needs to be answered with an affirmative “acknowledged.” Unless they want to go back to the “State” (prison), they have to agree. This also relieves Steve of any kind of criminal culpability.
At this point, serums from miniature cartridges are injected into the participant’s bloodstream through “MobiPaks,” softball-sized devices embedded in their lower backs which resemble an Xbox controller.
There’s the one which makes them laugh, one which makes them “amorous,” another which induces paranoia, one for extreme sadness, and one which alters visual perception which makes them perceive a trash heap to be a tropical garden.
Needless to say, this type of story provides the actors with a limitless, yet demanding canvas on which to work. Not exactly leading man handsome, the always underappreciated Teller steals the show as his is the only character given all of the serums, and the range he displays is off the charts.
The ‘Chris’ Club
As the anti-Thor, Hemsworth (also a member of the exclusive “Chris Actors Club” along with Pratt, Pine, and Evans) dresses more like a cruise ship event organizer than medical professional while sporting a George Michael stubble beard and gold-framed eyewear, and he is a smarmy delight.
At times channeling a glad-handing used car salesman, a concerned counselor, a back-slapping drinking buddy, or a surly, clenched-teeth schoolmarm, Hemsworth plays a villain we eventually come to loath but can’t wait to see what personality he’ll strap on next.
His evil Steve is like the metaphorical separated-at-birth-twin of Oscar Isaac’s Nathan from the similarly themed masterwork “Ex-Machina.”
Making the most of their limited (but not underwritten) supporting and love interest roles are Tess Haubrich (“The Wolverine”) as the initially unlikeable Heather and Jurnee Smollett (“Eve’s Bayou,”) as Lizzy, the facility’s chef. Recalling Zoe Kravitz (“The Batman”) and Zazie Beetz (“Deadpool 2,” “Joker”), Smollett is a ball of fire who someone should cast as the lead in … anything.
Songs as Characters
More so than any non-musical production in recent memory, the classic pop source songs chosen by the filmmakers here become de facto characters in film. They include “The Logical Song” (Supertramp), “What a Fool Believes” (The Doobie Brothers), “She Blinded Me With Science” (Thomas Dolby), “More Than This” (Roxy Music), “You Make My Dreams” (Hall & Oates), and “Crazy Love” (Poco).
By themselves as stand-alone productions, these largely bouncy, mid-tempo songs are pleasant in their own respective ways, but here they actually propel the narrative and, in some instances, provide additional comic relief. Hemsworth’s solo dance during “More Than This” is a stitch.
For purist Saunders fans (and there are many of you out there): Prepare yourself for a probable letdown. The filmmakers changed the ending in a major way and altered the final outcome in a manner that might lead you to scream “sell-out!”
As someone who loved the short story and really likes the movie, I appreciate both endings, which couldn’t be more different in tone, intent, or execution. One isn’t better than the other: They’re just different. If you haven’t read the short story yet, you’d serve yourself well by waiting to do so until after you see the movie.
“Top Gun: Maverick” was scheduled to be released in the spring of 2020, not long before Kosinski began production on “Spiderhead” in Australia. Determined to wait out the COVID-19 situation, “Maverick” co-producer Tom Cruise was firm in waiting two years before releasing it only in theaters and that decision proved to be very wise.
No one (besides Cruise) has benefited more from that chess move than Kosinski.
Good for him.
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguoi, Tess Haubrich
Running Time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5