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Imagine a prison where prisoners actually volunteer to serve their sentences. Somewhere with ocean views, decent, well-balanced meals, and a "respectful relationship" between jailer and the jailed. This prison touts many liberties: the freedom to interact with people, listen to music, and even choose what they wear each day or where they work within the prison. They get Fridays off, sleep in a comfy private bedroom, and there aren't any correctional officers roaming the prison: there's technology for that.
This would be a relative utopia compared to most U.S. jails, prisons and detention centers, making it the kind of place you might even opt into despite its major catch: The prison has full license to test its experimental suite of mind-altering drugs on any one in its confines.
This is the entire basis of "Spiderhead," a Netflix film adaptation of George Saunders's New Yorker short story "Escape from Spiderhead." The film is a psychological sci-thriller about a futuristic off-shore prison that recruits people convicted of murder and manslaughter, who transfer out of or evade altogether prison with bars and guards. Throughout the film, Dr. Steve Absenti (Chris Hemsworth), the pharmaceutical bro billed as the genius behind "Spiderhead," reminds prisoners that their "presence in this facility, while technically a punishment, is a privilege."
Neither the film nor the short story captures the unimaginable horrors of prison. If anything, the story and its adaptation show how disconnected many people are from how fundamentally dehumanizing the everyday reality of prison is. The fact the film was a major debut for Netflix proves that disconnect. "Spiderhead" is far from a one-off, extreme situation fit for a sci-fi universe; it's just an expensive and poorly written portrayal of the abusive norm in many prisons throughout the country.
The movie opens with Ray (Stephen Tongun)—a dark-skinned Black man sitting on a yellow couch in a stark-white observational room as he is given the drug Laffodil, which can make someone feel happy and laugh deliriously no matter what is going on. Every prisoner is outfitted with a "MobiPack" containing vials of drugs whose names hint at their function. At first, Absenti tells Ray corny jokes, sending him into a fit of intense laughter. The laughter only gets more uproarious when Absenti's assistant Mark (Mark Paguio), tells Ray that more than 800,000 people were killed during the Rwanandan genocide and reminds Ray he is serving four consecutive life sentences with no possibility of parole. This scene gave me pause—literally. It was the first of many times I would stop the film. I was stunned that a movie that bills itself as a sci-fi still portrays a very stereotypical view of a prisoner: a Black man serving a long sentence, too unhinged to understand the gravity of his situation all while under the paternalistic tutelage of a white man and the power of the state.
Watching this movie as someone exploring my writing and storytelling in film and in journalism spaces, and as someone who is already openly critical of the narrative that the policing institutions are automatically good was a journey. There were multiple times I had to pause, shake my head, rewind and convince myself to keep going. I was hoping for a hint of genuine sci-fi, some sort of a twist that never came, a movement toward an imagined world.
Instead, the film focuses a lot on the suite of drugs that Absenti is experimenting with.
There's Verbaluce, which increases a person's vocabulary. Absenti gives it to the volunteers so they can describe their feelings during experiments in excruciating detail. Darkenfloxx promotes dark thoughts and behavior. Obediex, the drug Absenti is secretly interested in, promotes obedience so powerful it could make anyone do something they fundamentally would never do, whether it's as small as being forced to eat a fruit you hate or as big as torturing and killing someone you love. But the one thing Absenti really struggles to create is a genuine, lasting feeling of love, the closest he gets is the drug Luvactin which can compel lust and a temporary infatuation.
Here's where the movie gets especially dark: Absenti brings two prisoners, Jeff and Heather into the observation room and, via a smartphone, injects the love drug Luvactin into them. At first, the two feel nothing towards each other, but as Mark increases their Luvactin dosage, they start having wild sex and professing their adoration for each other, as the scientists watch. Afterward, as the dosage of Luvactin drops, Jeff and Heather come out of their drugged state—embarrassed and confused.
This happens again and again between Jeff and various people. It was horrifying to watch for many reasons, the most disturbing being that no one seems to call it what it is: sexual violence and rape. And once again the film misses the mark because this isn't sci-fi. This kind of coercion and sexual abuse does happen within prisons all the time and often at the hands of correctional officers and other prison stakeholders themselves. The people who opt-in into Spiderhead are told that their relative freedoms inside the prison are only guaranteed if they let their bodies be used by Absenti—that really isn't much of a choice. Before Abensti or his assistant administer any dosages, prisoners must say they "acknowledge" the experimentation, Spiderhead's warped version of consent. The entire basis of incarceration is to remove free will and choice for the benefit of the state and a larger punitive society—and that is exactly what the sex scenes highlight.
There's nothing unique about this film, billed as a psychological thriller: Experimentation on incarcerated people is not something of sci-fi imagination. As recently as 2021, people in an Arkansas prison were given a mix of untested drugs after contracting Covid-19 and faced horrific side effects. Whether forcing people to take mind-bending LSDs, intentionally giving people syphilis, or making women undergo unwanted hysterectomies— abusing people in prison for the so-called 'sake' of society is a fundamental part of the American prison system. Failing to acknowledge how incarcerated people are treated in reality and instead placing it into the realm of sci-fi is delusional at best and harmful at worst.
Maybe what is most unnerving is how nice Absenti seems. He is charismatic, funny, casual—respectful even; he makes friends with the people he imprisons. But he is all of those things strictly to get what he wants, a population that willingly lets their bodies be used in exchange for basic freedom. That changes once Jeff questions him Absenting though.
Eventually, Absenti wants Jeff to give Darkenfloxx to Heather, and Jeff refuses because he's experienced how harmful the drug is himself. Jeff's empathy irritates and confuses Absenting, as he thinks the only reason that Jeff wouldn't callously let Heather take the drug is because Jeff has some sort of self-interest in Heather's protection. He even tells Jeff that he wouldn't be kind to Heather if he knew the crimes she committed, and she isn't deserving of Jeff's consideration. It appears that only Absenti knows the crimes that landed folks in Spiderhead, and he wields that over people like Jeff whenever they reject his wishes to keep experimenting.
Here, Absenti represents a larger punitive culture that built this nation. Relegating a class of people as the other, the condemned gives the Absentis of the world full license to exploit their bodies and labor without question. They deserve whatever treatment they get because of any crime they've committed; you are the worst thing you've ever done. This mindset has led to America always finding ways and justification to punish people punitively instead of providing resources that would prevent violence in the first place.
Ultimately, Absenti forces Heather to take the drug, and she kills herself in the experimentation room. It's sad, cruel, and disturbing, but it isn't shocking or unimaginable as the movie wants us to think it is. So many people are like Heather: ignored within the prison system, dehumanized, and pushed into corners of their mind that encourage them to harm themselves—often as leadership idly watches. As the movie progresses, it follows a budding romance between Jeff (Miles Teller) and Lizzy (Jussie Smollet), who are both serving time for accidentally killing the people they most loved, a fact that Absenti exploits when he asks Jeff to administer Darkenfloxx to Lizzy, too.
But before Darkenfloxx takes full hold of Lizzy, there's a kicker of the entire badly acted, dreary film. After Heather's suicide, Jeff catches on to Absenti's capitalist and self-serving antics when he stumbles upon a sheet of paper that proves Absenti runs the drug company and the prison with total autonomy. I don't get how any of this would be surprising when Absenti is the only official at the prison, but that would also imply that the film has a real plot. Jeff comes up with a way to use the smartphone to control Absenti's MobiPak.
When Absenti catches on, Jeff tells the scientist to give it up: The police were on their way…to the prison.
At this point I couldn't stop laughing. Even though the director and producer of the film said they think everything in "Spiderhead" could actually happen in real life, they couldn't think of any other way to achieve justice than by heroizing police. The reality is that America's punishment system seeks to protect itself. Cops, correctional officers, border patrol—anyone who works within the system—aren't supposed to break the code and punish one of their own. If Spiderhead were a real place, there wouldn't be police rushing to save the imprisoned people. Secondly, most people who've experienced incarceration wouldn't turn around and trust the prison system to make things right.
The film ends with Jeff and Lizzy escaping Spiderhead while a team of police boat cruisers dramatically speed towards the island. Absenti attempts to fly away on a propeller plane but he has accidentally drugged himself up with the mobipak and is so delirious with all the drugs in his system that he flies his helicopter into a mountain. He would have rather died than get arrested jailed.
After watching "Spiderhead," I couldn't help but think of the ways screen-writing and journalism seem different—at first. But I realized that in both spaces there is a deep and normalized obsession with notions of law & order. It's normalized to rely on cops as the representatives of goodness and safety. It's normalized for cops to be the saviors, even in a movie like "Spiderhead" where the cops are the bad guys. It's expected for cops to be the objective, clear-eyed executioners of justice, whether it's in a film in order to move the plot along or it's simply to tick the checkboxes in a reported piece that demands an allegiance to so-called objectivity, even though we statistically know that police and their affiliates aren't doing much at all to protect people who are incarcerated and definitely are not doing much to hold their own people accountable.