Greetings again from the darkness. “We are changing the world!” These days, those words tend to be more chilling than hopeful. More cautionary than exciting. Spoken a few times by scientist Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), those words have long ago lost the intended impact with his assistant Mark (Mark Paguio).
Steve is the warden of a high-tech experimental prison where the convicts have agreed to participate in drug studies in exchange for a relaxed/comfortable environment and the hope of early release. In fact, these folks are guinea pigs for mind-altering drugs controlled through a surgically attached mechanism on their lower back. We recognize that Steve is smart because he wears wire-rimmed glasses, and we recognize his villainous intent because of his smarmy nature and impossible to trust false charm.
Much of the focus here is on Jeff (the very talented Miles Teller) who is serving time due to his responsibility in a tragic car accident. Steve tests each of the drugs on Jeff, and each test requires Jeff to “acknowledge” his consent … as if it’s his choice to see what happens with the next round of mind-bending. The drugs have hilariously descriptive names: “Verbaluce” forces one to speak their mind, “Phobica” causes paranoia and fear, “Laffodil” generates uncontrollable laughter, and “Luvactin” … well, you get the idea.
Beyond the drugs, Jeff finds a soulmate in Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett) and ultimately, Steve pits the two against each other in order to elevate the drug testing and human behavior to extreme levels. The film carries a science fiction label, but mind-altering drugs are as much a part of the past and present as they are the future. Any promise shown in the early stages of the film have long evaporated by the insipid final act that pits Jeff and Lizzy against Steve and the other convicts.
The basis for the film is a George Saunders short story originally published in The New Yorker entitled, “Escape from Spiderhead”. It has been adapted for the screen by DEADPOOL and ZOMBIELAND co-writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Unfortunately, the wit and cleverness of those two films is never flashed here … except for the use of Thomas Dolby’s song, “She Blinded Me with Science.” Other late 70’s and 80’s songs provide only cringing, as they weren’t even that enjoyable at their peak. The director of this film, Joseph Kosinski, is riding high right now with his “other” film currently setting box office records. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: TOP GUN: MAVERICK. It’s unusual for a director to have two films out simultaneously, but the pandemic has caused quite a few oddities. I will “acknowledge” that the execution of this story is quite disappointing.
Releases globally on Netflix beginning June 17, 2022