Per Netflix’s confusing proprietary data, in its first week of release Spiderhead was viewed for a collective 35 million hours. Theoretically, any sci-fi head should be stoked by the existence of a lavishly made non-franchise sci-fi success built off the work of a singular American weirdo. But Spiderhead is mostly bad, and that’s a bummer. Because even beyond the potential of Saunders’ story, there’s a lot to work with here.
In America in 2022 it is absolutely feasible to, depending on your socioeconomic status, read a piece of investigative journalism about a bizarre prison experiment and tsk-tsk or horrifically experience it directly yourself. An extremely cursory search turns up this piece from the summer of 2021, in Arkansas, about four men being treated for Covid-19: “They soon began to suffer a series of side effects including vision problems, diarrhea, bloody stools and stomach cramps. It was only later that they discovered they had been prescribed, without their consent, significantly high doses of ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug commonly used on livestock animals.”
In Kosinksi’s hands, the material is treated with reactive bombast. If you’re being experimented on, ultimately, you’re going to have to punch someone. In Saunders’ hands, the candid response is more of an … endless mute scream of horror? I can’t help but think how a different, less physically primed set of actors might have handled Saunders’ stuff. Actors who can readily seem cowed and/or destroyed by the world. Jesse Eisenberg? Michael Shannon? Jessie Buckley?
In comparing Spiderhead the movie to its source material, Mashable wrote, “Saunders’ short story had the potential to be a contained, introspective sci-fi chamber piece in the vein of Ex Machina.” It’s a good comparison that reminds me, particularly, of the latter movie’s beloved dance scene.
Ex Machina’s director, Alex Garland, has said that scene came from an instinct to put something in his movie “that just busts up the tone and woke people up.” You can laugh at it; you’re supposed to laugh at it. Within Ex Machina’s constant creeping dread, there is—this. Whatever this is.
It also makes me think about the sci-fi-y Charlie Kaufman movies, or Bong Joon-ho’s happily over-the-top Snowpiercer, or the recent work-life-balance parable Severance: All of them are often, or primarily, ridiculous. In Black Mirror’s first episode, a head of state is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on TV. That is an objectively goofy premise; it’s my favorite episode of the show. When sci-fi isn’t obsessed with grand Manichean conflict, it can get a little dumb and a lot good.
Spiderhead’s ultimate sin is its ending, which is a pat action set piece through which every major character ultimately secures their “correct” fate. It should be noted, though, that Saunders’ short story makes a similar kind of mistake by offering the protagonist a (much more complicated) way out of the horror. If sci-fi at its best reflects not what being alive right now looks like but what it feels like, then the honest move is letting that same mute scream roll on forever.