(director: Joseph Kosinski; screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, based on a 2010 short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders; cinematographer: Claudio Miranda; editor: Stephen Mirrione; music: Joseph Trapanese; cast: Chris Hemsworth (Steve Abnesti), Miles Teller (Jeff), Jurnee Smollett (Lizzy), Mark Paguio (Verlaine), Nathan Jones (Rogan), Angie Miliken (Sarah), Stephen Tongun (Ray), Charles Parnell (Knowles), BeBe Bettencourt (Emma),  Tess Haubrich (Heather); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: R; producers:  Eric Newman, Chris Hemsworth, Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Agnes Chu, Geneva Wasserman, Tommy Harper, Jeremy Steckler; Netflix; 2022)

“Kosinski never gets it quite right, as the longer the film goes on the more steam it loses.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Joseph Kosinski (“Top Gun: Maverick”/”Tron:Legacy”), known for his large-scale action pictures, and the co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, adapt to the screen the New Yorker 2010 short story “Escape from Spiderhead” by George Saunders. The not too easy to film cerebral story, a tech-thriller/alternative prison story, is set in the near future. It’s filmed with two main characters operating in two rooms in an isolated single building island prison.  Kosinski never gets it quite right, as the longer the film goes on the more steam it loses.

Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth) is a brilliant and innovative scientist at the Spiderhead Penitentiary and Research Centre, where hardened convicts participate in clinical trials that include surgical implants (they all have on their backs a MobiPak that holds their mind-altering mood drugs that controls their behavior). What the prisoners get in return is a relaxed prison atmosphere without being behind bars and locked-up. They are allowed to dress in civvies and get a reduced sentence. The dosages are set by Steve and his assistant (Mark Paguio).

The laconic Jeff (Miles Teller) has been incarcerated for a drunken-driving accident that still mentally haunts him over losing in it his lover (BeBe Bettencourt).

Jeff falls for the incarcerated prison cook Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) after they share the same room, and after at first making no connection until something moves them sexually when the drugs kick in and they’re suddenly considering marriage. The talky film comes with lots of comical dialogue, mind-games and attempts at manipulation.

It plays out as a cautionary tale about the use of mood-altering drugs in prison to quiet the anger in the inmates. It questions if this is a viable treatment and wherein lies the line between reality and fiction.

Though it never answers the pertinent questions it asks about prison reform, with its main character playing God to the inmates. Its value comes from the performances of Hemsworth doing battle with Teller–which is entertaining, making this more a character study than either a sci-fi film or a prison reform drama.