Netflix’s newest sci-fi thriller, “Spiderhead,” is a wild trip! The movie centers on a state-of-the-art facility, where convicted felons volunteer for experimental drug trials in exchange for freedom. Agreeing to the experiments is rewarded with the ability to roam freely within the facility, which beats the hell out of prison, but the patients soon discover they aren’t as free as they believe.
Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is the man in charge of the facility and experiments, a brilliant scientist with a practiced smile that earns trust and loyalty. Jeff (Miles Teller) becomes the focus of Abnesti’s attention, and endures increasingly cruel drug experiments that leave him ashamed, guilt-ridden, and an accomplice to murder. Eventually, Jeff discovers the shocking truth about Abnesti, the experiments, and the facility.
Abnesti begins the film as a charismatic scientist who insists his work will save the world. He is clearly brilliant, charming, and devoted to his work. He frequently swaggers around to the jaunty beats of Hall and Oates and The Staple Sisters, but an obvious darkness bubbles just below the surface. He commands loyalty and respect through the use of veiled threats and blackmail, which allow him to perform humiliating and cruel experiments on the facility’s patients.
Every patient at Spiderhead is fitted with a MobiPak, a device that administers Abnesti’s drug of choice into their bloodstream. Abnesti enjoys sampling his own work, so he secretly wears one of the devices too, which is a decision that he will come to regret.
In the beginning, Abnesti administers chemicals that induce giggle fits or euphoria, which leads the patient to laugh hysterically at dad jokes or see the beauty in a polluting industrial facility. On the surface, it appears that the convicted felons have been saved from the horrors of prison and given access to their own Dr. Feelgood, but then the trials take a very dark turn.
For a reason that is not totally explained, Jeff becomes Abnesti’s favorite guinea pig, and the drugs become more dangerous. While Jeff is heavily medicated, the scientist grins and giggles as the felon has sex with strangers he believes he loves. These experiments cross a major ethical line and raise quite a few issues regarding consent, but the next trials are truly sinister.
After Jeff experiences drug-induced love and sex with two separate women, Abnesti wants Jeff to administer Darkenfloxx, a drug that causes pain and violence, to one of them. Given the voluntary nature of the trials, the experiment cannot move forward without the patient responding to a request with the word, “acknowledge.” Up until this point, Jeff has always acknowledged Abnesti’s request, but he refuses to do so this time.
Abnesti uses his trusty toolkit of veiled threats and the promise of a better future to convince Jeff to acknowledge his request, and the Darkenfloxx results in the violent death of the woman.
The death has a profound effect on Jeff, who is already struggling with the guilt of killing two people in a drunk driving accident, and his remorse heightens after the woman he loves becomes a victim of the trials. Throughout his time at the facility, Jeff has fallen for fellow convict Lizzie (Jurnee Smollett), and Abernesti uses this weakness to his advantage.
Turns out, in addition to the drugs that make the felons happy, euphoric, or aroused, they are unknowingly being pumped full of a drug that makes them obedient. Abnesti plans to use this drug to induce absolute obedience among the world’s population, and get filthy rich in the process, but he has to make sure it works first. Being the unhinged psycho that he is, he attempts to flood Jeff’s system with the chemical and make him administer Darkenfloxx to Lizzy.
Abnesti’s wonder drug, OBDX, is a failure and is not capable of overpowering true love, which allows Jeff to confront the scientist with the truth. After Abnesti overwhelms Lizzie’s system with Darkenfloxx, the two men struggle to protect what they cherish most. Jeff wants to save Lizzie and Abnesti fights to save the experiment. The obsessed scientist finally loses the empty smile and accepts his place as the villain of the film.
This scene reveals the true nature of the two men. Jeff, a man convicted of two counts of manslaughter, becomes a heroic figure who fights to save the women he loves. Abnesti, a brilliant scientist, admits that the experiment is “the only thing he’s ever loved,” and he’s willing to do anything to protect it.
In the fight between the scientist and Jeff, Abnesti’s MobiPak breaks, and his system floods with a cocktail of drugs that makes his emotions go haywire. Jeff wins the fight, rescuing Lizzie, and the two make it to a boat outside of the facility. Abnesti struggles to keep it together as he attempts to escape in his private plane, but he’s too good at his job, and the drugs get the better of him. As Lizzie and Jeff escape, Abnesti’s drugs trick him into believing he’s flying off into the sunset, which is actually a cliff, and the scientist’s life ends in a fiery impact.
The ending scene, and the film as a whole, explores the nature of free will and love. These emotions push Jeff to save the woman he loves from danger and escape the facility, while simultaneously leading Abnesti to his death. Beneath the story of an obsessive scientist and his synthetic emotions, “Spiderhead” explores the importance and consequences of free will and love.