GEORGE SAUNDERS, 63, is a rare type of dude: He writes weird stuff that people actually read. His 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo was narrated by a roiling crew of literal, often incomprehensible ghosts. It won The Booker Prize. He happily glides through genres, not so much discarding their rules as making it abundantly clear he never cared to learn those rules in the first place.
In 2006, the magazine Guernica asked Saunders about his relationship to one of his go-to genres, science fiction. “I didn’t really read a lot of it when I was young,” Saunders answered, then launched into an emotionally charged reminiscence of watching the first Star Wars and seeing the “ships fly over your head“ and noting “that they’re all kind of junked up on the bottom. They’re all scraped up, and there’s like rust and everything.” That moment was personally pivotal, he explained. “I thought, ‘Oh yeah, no matter how advanced we get—whether we have robotic cars or whatever—we’re still gonna fuck everything up with our humanness.’”
This is relevant because available on Netflix right now is a big-budget sci-fi flick called Spiderhead, which was adapted from a 2010 short story Saunders wrote in The New Yorker called “Escape From Spiderhead.” (Full disclosure: WIRED and The New Yorker are corporate siblings.) The story is effectively a two-hander between Jeff, an inmate-slash-subject in a brazenly immoral pharmaceutical experiment, and Abnesti, the apparently happy-go-lucky experimenter. Despite its Big Themes—pharmaceutical genius that labors only for profit, the problems of the carceral state—it is full of the foibles of humanness. Jeff and Abnesti are friends, really, and, just like friends, they destroy each other.
Spiderhead’s director is Joseph Kosinski, who is currently enjoying traditional box-office success with Top Gun: Maverick. Spiderhead stars handsome strong men Chris Hemsworth and Miles Teller. The logic, then, seems clear: Have a big-time director-fellow take a strange scrap of a story and pump it up. But as reviews have largely pointed out, in adapting Saunders’ original, the movie has managed to lose its peculiar charm.
To its credit, Spiderhead does retain a lot of the author’s trademark bizarro, dead-eyed corporate-speak, most notably some soul-crushing pharma brand names (MobiPak™, Verbaluce™, Darkenfloxx™). And Hemsworth, in particular, tries really hard to honor Saunders by getting a little goofy. But by the time we get to the finale’s fistfights and speed boats and other Movie Things, it’s hard not to wonder what the point ever was.
PER NETFLIX’S CONFUSING proprietary data, in its first week of release Spiderhead was viewed for a collective 35 million hours. Theoretically, any sci-fi head should be stoked by the existence of a lavishly made non-franchise sci-fi success built off the work of a singular American weirdo. But Spiderhead is mostly bad, and that’s a bummer. Because even beyond the potential of Saunders’ story, there’s a lot to work with here.
In America in 2022 it is absolutely feasible to, depending on your socioeconomic status, read a piece of investigative journalism about a bizarre prison experiment and tsk-tsk or horrifically experience it directly yourself. An extremely cursory search turns up this piece from the summer of 2021, in Arkansas, about four men being treated for Covid-19: “They soon began to suffer a series of side effects including vision problems, diarrhea, bloody stools and stomach cramps. It was only later that they discovered they had been prescribed, without their consent, significantly high doses of ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug commonly used on livestock animals.”
In Kosinksi’s hands, the material is treated with reactive bombast. If you’re being experimented on, ultimately, you’re going to have to punch someone. In Saunders’ hands, the candid response is more of an … endless mute scream of horror? I can’t help but think how a different, less physically primed set of actors might have handled Saunders’ stuff. Actors who can readily seem cowed and/or destroyed by the world. Jesse Eisenberg? Michael Shannon? Jessie Buckley?
In comparing Spiderhead the movie to its source material, Mashable wrote, “Saunders’ short story had the potential to be a contained, introspective sci-fi chamber piece in the vein of Ex Machina.” It’s a good comparison that reminds me, particularly, of the latter movie’s beloved dance scene.
Ex Machina’s director, Alex Garland, has said that scene came from an instinct to put something in his movie “that just busts up the tone and woke people up.” You can laugh at it; you’re supposed to laugh at it. Within Ex Machina’s constant creeping dread, there is—this. Whatever this is.
It also makes me think about the sci-fi-y Charlie Kaufman movies, or Bong Joon-ho’s happily over-the-top Snowpiercer, or the recent work-life-balance parable Severance: All of them are often, or primarily, ridiculous. In Black Mirror’s first episode, a head of state is blackmailed into having sex with a pig on TV. That is an objectively goofy premise; it’s my favorite episode of the show. When sci-fi isn’t obsessed with grand Manichean conflict, it can get a little dumb and a lot good.
Spiderhead’s ultimate sin is its ending, which is a pat action set piece through which every major character ultimately secures their “correct” fate. It should be noted, though, that Saunders’ short story makes a similar kind of mistake by offering the protagonist a (much more complicated) way out of the horror. If sci-fi at its best reflects not what being alive right now looks like but what it feels like, then the honest move is letting that same mute scream roll on forever.