I've got to be honest. Any film called Spiderhead sounds like a winner to me, and I'm already singing "spiderhead, spiderhead, does whatever a spider head does" in my best Homer Simpson voice. But sadly Netflix's Spiderhead is not a film about a web-slinging skull that's been bitten by a radioactive spider, and it seems that many critics might have preferred it if it was.
Spiderhead is based on a critically acclaimed short story ("Escape from Spiderhead") by George Saunders, and takes place in a futuristic prison where the inmates are experimented on with a collection of mind-altering drugs in exchange for shorter sentences. Chris Helmsworth plays the programme's overseer, and on paper it sounds very much like my kind of thing: I'm still wiping away the tears from last night's long-delayed viewing of the Black Mirror episode San Junipero.
Unfortunately it seems that the screenwriters, fresh from Deadpool, have struggled to get the tone right: RogerEbert.com says they strive for a "disquieting quirkiness" but the writing is too heavy-handed and Hemsworth is miscast. Despite this, it's currently number 2 in Netflix's trending chart.
Why the critics are slamming Spiderhead
Spiderhead's Rotten Tomatoes score is truly dismal: 44% from the critics and 35% from audience reviews. The Australian says it's "like a lesser episode of Black Mirror", while the Chicago Sun-Times says it "has idiocy in its veins". CNN says it's "one of those movies that's forgotten almost as soon as it ends", and the Movie Madness Podcast says that "Chris Hemsworth is in a comedy. Everyone else is in search of some dramatic sci-fi thriller".
George Saunders' work often has a mix of dystopia and humour in it, but it's a tricky thing to get right: Saunders is lauded because he's really good at it. It seems that the writers here haven't quite achieved what they set out to do, possibly because they've had to expand a one-act story into a three-act movie. And they've also changed the ending to something more Hollywood than you'll find in Saunders' original story.
Not all the reviews are bad, and many praise Hemsworth for trying to make the most of a poorly written script. But the key criticism is that the writers have taken a very good short story and messed with it. Writing in Everything's Interesting, critic Eric Langberg says that "Spiderhead doesn’t have the courage of Saunders’ convictions, and the third act severely departs from the original story in a way that suggests it doesn’t trust its audience... It’s a shame, because the acting is really quite good." Slate's Laura Miller agrees, saying that it soon "becomes obvious that this film won't have the courage of Saunders' story." As Men's Health puts it about the film's ending: "Different? Yes. Worse? Also, probably yes."