One word sums up Netflix’s ambitions over the past decade: disruption. The streaming company has always worn the “disruptor” moniker as a badge of honour, like a brash schoolchild flicking the “V” at a crusty old headteacher. Admittedly, most of this rep came from the sheer transformative newness of streaming itself – how it changed viewing habits, making traditional broadcast TV seem antiquated and restrictive. But Netflix also spent time, and considerable money, establishing itself as a place that would commission what other platforms refused to make. This covered everything from strikingly original animations (BoJack Horseman; The Midnight Gospel) to revivals of cancelled TV gems (Arrested Development; Black Mirror) to reality shows with premises that frankly defy belief (Floor Is Lava; Is it Cake?). A $200m, three-and-a-half hour Scorsese movie that de-ages its cast by half a century? Go on then. Orson Welles’s final film, painstakingly assembled from a jumble of notes and raw footage? You got it.
On the face of it, Netflix’s latest offering, Spiderhead, ought to fit the platform like a glove. The film – about a prisoner undergoing futuristic drug trials – is a mid-budget, adult-oriented sci-fi, the sort that’s becoming a dying breed in traditional movie studios. It’s got a dark, compelling premise, a timely satirical edge, and, in Chris Hemsworth, a widely recognisable movie star. It takes place primarily within the sterile walls of the Spiderhead research compound, so it’s also relatively modest in scope; you’d imagine the film’s single biggest expense would have been Hemsworth’s salary. Tonally, it’s in line with much of the streamer’s previous output: there is a soupcon of the flash-in-the-pan hit Maniac and several dollops of Black Mirror. But Spiderhead also exposes the limits of Netflix’s “disruptor” pretentions – underneath it all, it’s not as daring as it seems.
Spiderhead is adapted from the short story “Escape From Spiderhead” by the American writer George Saunders (best known for his fascinating 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo). It’s a slight but memorable little story, set at an experimental research facility where felons are subject to extreme mood-altering drugs. Jeff (Miles Teller) is one of the prisoner-subjects. Lizzy (a creation of the film, played by Jurnee Smollett) is another. Chemicals are used on them to induce pure unfettered love, or loquaciousness, or hilarity, or terror, or an intense, severe depression. Running the experiments is Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a disconcertingly cheerful scientist. I’ve seen Saunders’s short story described as “humorous”, but that rather missells it. Spiderhead has bleakness in its bones; it’s dark and violent and almost perversely cynical about the world. Saunders’s version ends with its protagonist deliberately flooding his bloodstream with the depression drug and bashing his skull in on the corner of a table, to avoid inflicting the same sensation on someone else. The only escape from Spiderhead is death. (I said it was bleak!) But amid this horror, there is also a story of redemption, of rediscovered humanity in a mechanism designed to totally dehumanise.
In Netflix’s Spiderhead, the ending has been radically Hollywoodised – swapped out wholesale for something people will more easily swallow. Slapping on a more conventional ending and a couple of gratuitous fight scenes isn’t even the worst of Spiderhead’s crimes. It significantly alters the prisoners’ backstories – no longer is Jeff a cold-blooded killer, now he’s just a drunk driver with blood on his conscience – taking away a whole layer of the story’s moral complexity, and thoroughly blunting the redemption arc. Hemsworth’s character is beefed up significantly from the short story, in which he is little more than a callous corporate tool. But in transforming Spiderhead into a tale of one man’s megalomaniacal evil, the satirical impetus is also lost. No longer is it a functioning critique of big pharma’s corporate callousness. It’s David vs techno-Goliath, and we’re just supposed to sit back and wait for him to turn the tables. Naturally, any page-to-screen fiction adaptation is going to require some practical changes – there is no way of stretching “Escape from Spiderhead” into a two-hour movie without some serious embellishment. But the changes here betray not just the spirit of the original, but its very substance.
When push comes to shove, Netflix executives will be acutely aware of the importance of a palatable ending – and just how much audiences fear a downbeat one. They will know, for instance, that Adam Sandler’s uplifting NBA drama Hustle has been absolutely embraced by audiences, while his previous (and far superior) Netflix drama, Uncut Gems, was pointedly not. (The masterfully tense, difficult-to-watch Gems earned a pretty crummy 52 per cent audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, despite rave reviews.)
Now that the novelty of Netflix’s “disruptor” status is wearing off, it seems Netflix is as subject to the whims and demands of the mass market as any traditional film studio. Keep making challenging and unpleasant films, and eventually, subscribers will start being repelled, so the thinking seems to go. Netflix’s recent drop in subscribers had led to reports of a strategic rethink – including a decrease in the volume of mid-budget film releases in favour of higher-budget tentpole movies. But challenging unconventional content has always been one of its biggest draws: the reason why people signed up in the first place. With Spiderhead – and not for the last time – Netflix has chosen the path of least resistance. But sometimes, just sometimes, the resistance is the point.
‘Spiderhead’ is out on Netflix now