Maverick Director Kosinski Delivers Another Winner

R | 1h47 | Science fiction, Drama, Black comedy, Romance, Thriller | June 17, 2022 (US)

Joseph Kosinski is having a pretty good spring. The 48-year-old Milwaukeean directed the critically acclaimed box office hit “Top Gun: Maverick,” which will likely receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination, a huge rarity for action movies.

The film’s success instantly catapulted him to the A list of Hollywood filmmakers. From that point on, he can make any kind of film he wants, and that lends great credence to the phrase “timing is everything.” More on that in a moment.

Dark humor

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.

“Deadpool” and “Zombieland” franchise screenwriters Reese and Wernick infuse their scripts with plenty of self-conscious, dark humor that doesn’t so much complement the darker dramatic elements as it enhances them.

In one scene, a character is shown reading “Tenth of December”, Saunders’ Booker Prize-winning short story collection, which includes “Escape from Spiderhead”.

Nathan Jones as Rogan in a scene from “Spiderhead”. (Netflix)

Chris Hemsworth has fun playing Steve Abnesti, the director-supervisor-administrator of the “Spiderhead Penitentiary & Research Center”, a facility housing convicts who have volunteered to undergo psychological experiments instead of spending time “hard” in traditional prisons.

Epoch Times Photo
Chris Hemsworth as Steve Abnesti in ‘Spiderhead’. (Netflix)

Everyone has their own bedroom, and the spacious shared living space feels more like a museum than a hospital or halfway house. The premise and setting immediately reminded me of the lyrics “did you trade a role in war for a lead role in a cage” from Pink Floyd’s 1975 song “Wish You Were Here”.

This applies to no one better than Jeff (Miles Teller), an unassuming guy whose crime is revealed in three fragmented flashbacks, the last not arriving until the third act. Home to tankard ships full of guilt and remorse, Jeff is a favorite of Steve (who hates being called by his last name), mostly because he thinks nothing done to him here could be worse than what he did outside.

Recognize or else

A typical session involves two “residents” (residents, not inmates) in a room sitting across from each other with Steve and his assistant Verlaine (Mark Paguio) asking for permission to begin, which is answered with a “recognized”. Unless they want to go back to “the state” (prison), they have to agree. It also relieves Steve of any form of criminal culpability.

At this point, serums from miniature cartridges are injected into the participant’s bloodstream via “MobiPaks”, softball-sized devices embedded in the lower back that resemble an Xbox controller.

There’s one that makes them laugh, one that makes them “in love,” another that induces paranoia, one for extreme sadness, and one that alters visual perception that makes them perceive a pile of garbage as a tropical garden.

Needless to say, this type of story gives actors an unlimited but demanding canvas to work on. Not exactly handsome, the ever-underrated Teller steals the show as he’s the only character to receive all the serums, and the range he displays is off the charts.

The “Chris” Club

As an anti-Thor, Hemsworth (also a member of the exclusive “Chris Actors Club” with Pratt, Pine and Evans) dresses more like a cruise event planner than a medical professional while sporting a beard of George Michael’s beard and gold frames. glasses, and it’s a smarmy delight.

Sometimes channeling a smiling used-car salesman, a worried adviser, a back-slapping drinking buddy, or a surly, gritted-toothed schoolteacher, Hemsworth plays a villain we come to hate, but look forward to. to see which personality he’ll strap on next.

Its villainous Steve is like the metaphorical twin separated at birth from Oscar Isaac’s Nathan from the same-themed masterpiece “Ex-Machina.”

Making the most of their limited (but unsubscribed) supporting and love roles are Tess Haubrich (“The Wolverine”) as the initially unlikable Heather and Jurnee Smollett (“Eve’s Bayou”) as Lizzy, the head of the establishment. Reminiscent of Zoe Kravitz (“The Batman”) and Zazie Beetz (“Deadpool 2,” “Joker”), Smollett is a fireball someone should throw as a leader in…anything.

Epoch Times Photo
Jurnee Smollett as Lizzy (L) and Miles Teller as Jeff in a scene from ‘Spiderhead’. (Netflix)

Songs as characters

More than any non-musical production in recent memory, the classic pop source songs chosen by the filmmakers here become de facto characters in the 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).

On their own as stand-alone productions, these broadly bouncy mid-tempo songs are enjoyable in their respective ways, but here they actually propel the narrative forward and, in some cases, provide additional comic relief. Hemsworth’s solo dance during “More Than This” is a point.

For purist Saunders fans (and there are many of you): Prepare for probable disappointment. The filmmakers changed the ending in major ways and altered the end result in ways that might have you screaming “sell!”

As someone who loved the short story and really loves the movie, I enjoy both endings, which couldn’t be more different in tone, intent, or execution. One is not better than the other: they are just different. If you haven’t read the short story yet, you’d better wait to do so after seeing the movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” was slated for release in spring 2020, shortly 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 turned out to be a very good one.

No one (apart from Cruise) has benefited more from this chess move than Kosinski.

Good for him.

‘Spider Head’
Director: Joseph Kosinski
With: Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, Jurnee Smollett, Mark Paguoi, Tess Haubrich
Duration: 1 hour 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release date: June 17, 2022
Rating: 4 out of 5

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