Spiderhead turns Chris Hemsworth into Tech Entrepreneurs’ Dr. Moreau
What would you do to erase your list of sins? This question is at the heart of Spider-Head, the sci-fi thriller from director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett which debuts June 17 on Netflix. (Read our Spider head review.)
Adapted from the short story by writer George Saunders in 2010, “Escape from Spiderhead”, the film develops a near-future storyline where Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) is the shredding warden of an isolated experimental prison. Inside the Spiderhead bunker exists a select group of ex-convicts who have volunteered to reside in this relaxed community where they accept daily doses of tailored medication that alters their emotional responses, which Abnesti then studies.
The storyline itself has shades of HG Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, while updating the physical human tinkering of that story to our modern technological age where Abnesti’s drugs (with names like Verbaluce™ and Darkenfloxx™) have the potential to turn any of the inmates into monsters with nowhere to go.
Spiderhead was Joseph Kosinski’s follow-up project to Top Gun: Maverick and was filmed in Australia during the height of COVID protocols in late 2020. Miles Teller, who plays study participant Jeff, tells IGN that the constraints of the production fueled the claustrophobia of the film’s scripts.
“We had to quarantine ourselves for two weeks in a hotel room, and a bit of that sense of caution that we absolutely tried to inject into the film,” Teller explains. “It was really almost a mirror of how everyone lived. You couldn’t have big stages with a lot of extras and you couldn’t do certain things, so it was really a perfect project for the time.
The Spiderhead environment is the carefully curated reality of Steve Abnesti, who rules the establishment as a benevolent dictator. The character gives Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to play someone against type. He tells IGN that he was inspired by real-life figures of power.
“We talked about a lot of giant tech entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley guys,” Hemsworth shares. “Also dictators throughout history and famous and powerful individuals. The common thread was that this character possessed enormous intellectual strength and was manipulative due to his understanding of human behavior. But there is also a darker side, you know? There’s this massive ego, driven by a kind of naivety, conveniently, about the consequences of his actions.
What Hemsworth delivers is a man defined by his unpredictability, which makes him entirely mercurial with his study participants. He’s nice one minute and then intensely passive-aggressive the next. “We wanted it to not feel familiar or anything similar to what I had done, or any kind of traditional villain or traditional hero we’ve seen before,” adds Hemsworth. “Every time he entered a space where he felt conventional, we just tried to attack him from a different angle.”
Abnesti’s actions put characters like Jeff and program newcomer Lizzie (Smollett) on edge as they become increasingly uncomfortable with how drug doses make them feel or interact. with the others. Already suffering from the aftermath of the crimes that landed them in prison, their guilt and fear only worsen due to Abnesti’s moral conundrums.
Teller says Jeff is here because he wants to understand how he feels about himself. “I think he really needed to buy everything the Chris character sells, and that’s why he kind of became the perfect specimen for Abnesti,” the actor said. “He wanted to reform. He wanted to feel better and somehow get over to the other side. There is a real darkness with Jeff, I think at the beginning of this story, and this installation and this program represents that light for him.
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