Spiderhead Turns Chris Hemsworth Into the Dr. Moreau of Tech Entrepreneurs

Spiderhead Turns Chris Hemsworth Into the Dr. Moreau of Tech Entrepreneurs

What would you do to wipe your slate of sins clean? That question lies at the heart of Spiderhead, the slick, sci-fi thriller from director Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick) and starring Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller and Jurnee Smollett that debuts June 17 on Netflix. (Read our Spiderhead review.)

Adapted from writer George Saunders’ 2010 short story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” the movie expands upon a near future scenario where Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth) is the chipper warden of an isolated, experimental prison facility. Inside the Spiderhead bunker exists a select group of former correctional inmates who volunteered to reside in this relaxed community where they accept daily dosings of bespoke drugs that alter their emotional responses, which Abnesti then studies.

The scenario itself has shades of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, while updating that story’s physical human tinkering to our modern tech times 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 shot 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 fed the claustrophobia of the film’s scenarios.

“We had to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel room, and a bit of that cagey feeling we absolutely tried to inject into the film,” Teller says. “It really was almost a mirror to how everybody was living. You couldn’t have big scenes with a lot of extras and you couldn’t do certain things, so this was really a perfect project for the times.”

There’s this massive ego, driven by a sort of naivete, conveniently, about the consequences of his actions.

The Spiderhead environment is the carefully curated reality of Steve Abnesti, who runs the facility like a benevolent dictator. The character gives Chris Hemsworth the opportunity to play someone against type. He tells IGN that he looked to real life figures of power for inspiration.

“We talked about a lot of different tech-giant entrepreneurs and Silicon Valley types,” Hemsworth shares. “Also dictators through history and famous, powerful individuals. The running thread was there’s a huge amount of intellectual strength that this character has and he is manipulative due to understanding human behavior. But there’s a darker side there too, you know? There’s this massive ego, driven by a sort of naivete, 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 to not have it feel familiar or anything similar to what I had done, or any sort of traditional villain or traditional hero seen before,” Hemsworth adds. “Whenever it got into a space where it felt conventional, we just were trying to attack it from a different angle.”

Abnesti’s actions put characters like Jeff and program newcomer Lizzie (Smollett) on edge when they become increasingly uncomfortable with how the drug dosings make them feel or interact with others. Already suffering with the aftermaths of the crimes that put them in prison, their guilt and fear only deepens due to Abnesti’s moral conundrums.

Teller says Jeff is there because he wants to alieve how he feels about himself. “I think he really needed to buy into everything that Chris’s character is selling, And that’s why he kind of became the perfect specimen for Abnesti,” the actor assesses. “He wanted to reform. He wanted to feel like a better person and to somehow come through the other side. There’s a real darkness with Jeff, I think at the beginning of this story, and this facility and this program represents that light for him.”

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Smollett’s character of Lizzie is original to this adaptation and unraveling her story is a big part of Jeff’s interior journey. Kosinski shares, “Jurnee came in and really took what was on the page and expanded it even further, and had a lot of great ideas about Lizzie’s backstory, and the secret that she holds, which is such a key moment in the film. That to me, I think, is a real exciting addition to George’s original story.”

The actress tells IGN that she really dug into the most human aspect of the story. “One of the things that I was really leaning into about the film is that while Spiderhead is this really entertaining, thought-provoking, genre-bending sci-fi, dark comedy/satire, there is this subplot of a love story,” Smollett says. “These two star-crossed lovers are seeking redemption, and seeking forgiveness of oneself and seeking to find this real unconditional love in a place that is cold and sterile. It’s the complete opposite of love.”

Coming out of role-playing a willing guinea pig to science, Smollett says she has a new appreciation for awareness in all aspects of her life. “It makes your awareness heightened of manipulation, and of ways in which we are manipulated, big and small,” she says. “In relationships, in professional dynamics, in culture and the world. With technology, we have all of this at our fingertips, but who’s actually in control of that? Who’s actually in power? Who actually has all our data? Who’s making the decisions and are we puppets? I definitely left this project questioning a lot and assessing a lot and being more observant.”

Have you seen Netflix’s Spiderhead yet? Are you a puppet?! Let’s discuss in the comments!

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