Maverick director sets new low for Netflix

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There’s only one way to escape Spiderhead in devious postmodern rogue George Saunders’ almost unfilmable short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” and it rhymes with skip-to-my-lou-icide. Unlike print fiction, where just about anything happens, movies that feature acts of self-harm should be very careful, as audiences are known to imitate those same acts. Right off the bat, Netflix warns viewers of its woefully flawed adaptation that the film exhibits such behavior. But if Netflix really cared about our well-being, why release such a bad movie we would do almost anything to escape “Spiderhead” ourselves?

No one would blame you for tasting it in the first place. Saunders is a wickedly funny author with more major writing awards than Meryl Streep has Oscars. The tricky source material was translated by ‘Deadpool’ duo Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, who understand how to walk the line between outrageous and offensive, then handed over to ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ director Joseph Kosinski, who clearly doesn’t know. . The Netflix logo might make you think, but it bears the imprimatur of New Yorker Studios. (The magazine was the first to publish his story, and it, in turn, is one of the first feature films he produced.) Plus, it stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, and a guy with tattoos covering half of his body, big enough to eat the both of them.

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Ta-dum! So you gave in and clicked play, and immediately something went wrong. If you’re familiar with the short story, it all feels wrong. But for the vast majority of people — who don’t even bother to read Netflix’s plot capsules, let alone the short stories set in The New Yorker — “Spiderhead,” the movie will be the first and only encounter they will have with the darkness of Saunders. and practically deranged premise.

“Spiderhead” the film is set in a futuristic research facility, i.e. Spiderhead, where prisoners of serious crimes are offered an alternative to hard times: they can take part in a series of drug tests led by a sociopath named Steve Abnesti (Hemsworth). The drugs in question have tongue-in-cheek pharmaceutical-sounding names, like Luvactin™ and Darkenfloxx™, complete with tiny trademark symbols. (In the movie, they’re also given alphanumeric IDs, randomly assigned from a bingo card. Because someone thought it might be funny.) These trials use chemicals to manipulate emotions and human behavior: love and fear, honesty and obedience. Verbaluce™ stimulates the language centers. Vivistif™ works like Viagra™.

Before Abnestic can dose his subjects with these mood-altering substances, they must verbally say the word “recognize”. But the real manipulator here is Abnesti, who bullies and cajoles his subjects into totally inappropriate situations. Situations like these – i.e. forcing a subject to administer Darkenfloxx™ to a female Luvactin™ twisted him into fucking three times in a row, effectively leading her to coo-coo-ca-chooicide – are very difficult to make funny when performed by real people. To be clear, there isn’t a single word or gesture that remotely resembles human behavior in the entire film.

Even if there were, Hemsworth is not the right actor for this role. Sure, we’ve seen him be funny before (playing Ghostbusters’ aerial assistant in ‘Ghostbusters’, for example), but the comedy here is supposed to come from how incredibly insensitive this man is – that and the settings extremely unprofessional of his experiences, which cross just about every line imaginable, ethically. So it’s not enough for Hemsworth to pose and look cute, clenching his jaw and delivering funny lines like, “Pretty people get away with it too much. I say this because I have taken advantage of it a few times myself. Because there is no joke to make.

Reese and Wernick don’t understand. They think it features Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science” in experiments.

Kosinski does not understand. He thinks he’s ordering two Luvactin™-pumped subjects to face off like a pair of over-sexed Tex Avery cartoons, while the Swingle Sisters bicker alongside.

The actors don’t understand. They were trained to find reality in their roles, but Saunders’ sense of humor is taken to such incredible extremes that it would have been wiser to enlist Peter Sellers with their performances.

Tonally, there’s no easy way to play Abnesti or his human guinea pigs, each of whom has been locked up for some truly heinous act – like infanticide, murder, or granting rights for a George Saunders story to Netflix. All except Jeff (Teller), whose crime was his own punishment. Jeff got drunk and drove his car into a tree, killing his best friend. Kosinski shows the accident in a flashback, so overloaded with visual effects, it looks like a scene Baz Luhrmann left out in “The Great Gatsby.” Kosinski then returns to the same incident later, revealing another victim.

There’s a reason Kosinski and company decided to make Jeff more likable than he was in the short story. In the news, Jeff smashed his friend’s head with a rock. But the film crew is focusing on this Spiderhead escape idea. And they don’t think schmuicide would lead to a happy ending. (OK, fine. But the movie has such an unfortunate beginning and middle, what difference does it make?)

In the film, Spiderhead is a swanky concrete bunker on a remote tropical island accessible only by biplane. The architect has clearly watched a few James Bond movies. But what that has to do with Saunders’ story is uncertain.

Surely someone must have read the source material and realized that the film would go in a very different direction. Which direction would it be? Imagine the Michael Bay version of “Flowers for Algernon.” Or Stanley Milgram’s study reimagined as an action movie, with poorly staged fist fights and low budget explosions.

Saunders’ story is fun. Not his best, but certainly on par with other fiction that appears in The New Yorker. Amid the laughter, designed to make readers uncomfortable, Saunders longs to better understand what drives certain human behaviors. Could you create a drug that makes subjects happy or excited, discouraged or obedient, without the lingering effects of that emotion? How is this different from what our bodies feel like love or pain?

But the moment you ask a bunch of actors to play the same script for real, it all falls apart. Kosinski is a gifted director, but his specialty is juggling human elements with complex visual effects. He is not made for this kind of comedy. His design choices are all wrong. The execution is deaf. And even Oscar-winning editor Stephen Mirrione can’t save it (nor could he save Charlie Kaufman/George Clooney’s “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind”).

And so we are left with the sickening feeling of seeing people being forced to act against their will, depending on the drugs loaded into their MobiPaks™. We’re asked to believe that Abnesti could have fitted the same device to himself, that he would leave the keys to his secret drawer for Jeff to access, and that whatever the news doesn’t have explained could be unraveled when Jeff looks inside said drawer. Impossible. Or, by the film’s own wonky rules, we don’t recognize.

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