Spiderhead Is Missing What Made the Story Great

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.

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).

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.

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.