Producers: Eric Newman, Chris Hemsworth, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Agnes Chu, Geneva Wasserman, Tommy Harper and Jeremy Steckler Director: Joseph Kosinski Screenplay: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguio, Tess Haubrich, Angie Milliken, Nathan Jones, Sam Delich, Joey Vieira, BeBe Bettencourt, Daniel Reader, Ben Knight, Ron Smyck and Stephen Tongun Distributor: Netflix
George Saunders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” which appeared in The New Yorker in 2010, used the premise of “A Clockwork Orange”—about the development of drugs to control emotion and change behavior—as the basis for a parable of redemption (not unlike the full twenty-one chapter original of Anthony Burgess’ novel) rather than the bleak commentary on human nature that the shortened, twenty-chapter American version of the book (and the Stanley Kubrick film based on it) were.
The difference is that while Kubrick, while putting his own stamp on the book, delivered a provocative masterpiece, director Joseph Kosinki (“Oblivion,” “Top Gun: Maverick”) and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (“Zombieland,” “Deadpool”) have brutally conventionalized Saunders’ story, turning it into a familiar mad scientist movie in which the victim escapes not by making the ultimate sacrifice but by simply busting out, destroying the villain in the process. Comparisons to “Frankenstein” and “The Island of Dr. Moreau” become more apt than those to “A Clockwork Orange.”
As in the story, Spiderhead is a prison facility whose violent inmates have agreed to be the subjects of experimentation by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a Big Pharma mogul, and his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio). They have packs attached to their backs that are fitted with different emotion-inducing chemicals that can be released into theirboodstam. In return for serving as guinea pigs, they have nice quarters and reasonable freedom of movement in the place, and theoretically their participation is voluntary to a degree, since they have to say yes—“Acknowledge”—to a proposed infusion. But that’s window-dressing, since a refusal can land them back in the general prison population.
The conflicted hero is Jeff (Miles Teller), whose crime has been much softened from the short story to make him more sympathetic. He’s also been granted a significant other, Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett), also an inmate made more sympathetic in terms of her past, with whom he shares an apartment-like cell.
The crux of the plot involves Jeff’s dilemma when, after having enjoyed full-throated sexual encounters with two other women, Heather (Tess Haubrich) and Sarah (Angie Milliken), Steve—or, as he claims, the committee giving him orders—demands that Jeff choose one of them to receive a dose of a compound that causes intense pain and wrenching psychological distress. The decision causes Jeff, who’s trying to be a better person, to resist doing the deed, and the experiment has a tragic outcome. Jeff comes under further pressure when Lizzy is added to the equation and he finds out what Steve is actually up to. Will he go along with what is clearly a cruelly mercantile program or rebel against it? And if so, how?
The answer to the latter is obvious, of course, when you decide to junk Saunders’ ending, which would never fly with a mass audience, and opt for a supposedly exciting dash through a gauntlet of cutthroats to freedom while the villain, having gotten a taste of his own medicine as it were, attempts to evade his just deserts.
Perhaps if the filmmakers had decided to go the Kubrick route—ramping up the weirdness by turning everyone into caricatures—the picture might have taken off. But though there’s a lurch in that direction in the portrayal of Abnesti as a flippantly over-the-top manipulator who enjoys prancing about even as he engages in the most grotesquely inhumane actions—sort of like a villain in the campy old “Batman” TV series—the effort is undercut by the casting of Hemsworth. He gives it the old college try, but still comes across as a smirking male model with spiffy suits and photogenic facial stubble.
Meanwhile everybody else is directed to treat the material with total earnestness, with Teller’s boyish good-guy persona darkened very little by the repeated flashbacks to the night when his cockiness had fatal consequences that haunt him to this day, and only a few of the supporting players, like Nathan Jones as a heavily tattooed bruiser Jeff’s paired off with at one point, given a glimmer of humor. Even the look of the picture feels off: the antiseptic production design (Jeremy Hindle) and gleaming cinematography (Claudio Miranda) add little texture to the facility, and neither Stephen Mirrione’s editing nor Joseph Trapanese’s score enlivens the final chase, which despite lots of incident comes off as perfunctory.
Simply put, this is a film in which the tone seems misjudged in virtually every respect. It’s disheartening that The New Yorker Studio, whose logo is emblazoned upfront with the other producing entities, allowed something in which it had a certain proprietary interest to be treated so clumsily; the magazine usually has better taste.