One word summarizes Netflixambitions over the last decade: undermining. The streaming company has always carried the nickname “destroyer” as a badge of honor, like a cocky schoolboy flipping a “V” at a grumpy old principal. Admittedly, much of this reputation has come from the sheer transformative novelty of streaming—how it has changed viewing habits, making traditional broadcast TV obsolete and restrictive. But Netflix has also spent time and a lot of money establishing itself as the place to order what other platforms refuse to do. It covered everything from startlingly original animations (BoJack Horseman; Midnight Gospel) to the revival of canceled TV gems (retarded development; Black mirror) to a reality show with premise that blatantly defies belief (floor lava; This is cake?). Three and a half hours of a $200 million Scorsese film that rejuvenates the cast by half a century? Then go on. Orson Welles’ last film, meticulously assembled from a pile of notes and raw footage? Do you understand.
Chris Hemsworth as Abnesti in George Saunders’ Netflix adaptation of Spider Head.
– Courtesy of Netflix
At first glance, Netflix’s latest offering, Spider, should sit on the platform like a glove. The film, about a prisoner going through a futuristic drug test, is the mid-budget adult sci-fi that is becoming a dying generation in traditional film studios. It has a dark, compelling premise, a timely satirical edge, and, in Chris Hemsworth, a well-known movie star. It takes place mostly within the sterile walls of the Spiderhead research facility, so its scale is also relatively modest; You can imagine that the biggest expense for the film was Hemsworth’s salary. Tonally, this matches much of the streamer’s previous output: there’s a flash-in-the-pan hit soup-con. Maniac and a few spoons Black mirror. But Spider also exposes the limitations of Netflix’s “destroyer” claim – underneath it all is not as bold as it seems.
Spider adaptation of the American writer’s short story “Escape from the Spider’s Head”. George Saunders (best known for his 2017 captivating novel Lincoln in Bardo). It’s a short but memorable little story set in an experimental research facility where criminals are exposed to hard mood-altering drugs. Jeff (Miles Teller) is one of the prisoners. Lizzie (the film’s creation, played by Jurnee Smollett) is another one. They are exposed to chemicals to cause pure unbridled love, or talkativeness, or amusement, or horror, or severe, severe depression. The experiments are conducted by Steve Abnesti (Chris Hemsworth), a surprisingly cheerful scientist. I’ve seen Saunders’ story described as “humorous”, but that’s more of a misconception. Spider has despondency in the bones; it’s dark, brutal, and almost perversely cynical about the world. Saunders’ version ends with the protagonist deliberately filling his blood with depression medicine and smashing his head against the corner of a table so as not to cause the same feeling in someone else. The only way out of Spiderhead is death. (I said it was grim!) But in the midst of this horror, there is also a story of redemption, a rediscovery of humanity in a mechanism designed to be completely dehumanized.
At Netflix Spider, the ending was radically Hollywood – completely replaced with something that would be easier for people to swallow. A more traditional ending and a couple of useless fight scenes isn’t the worst of it. Spidercrimes. This significantly changes the backstory of the prisoners – Jeff is no longer a cold-blooded killer, now he’s just a drunk driver with blood on his conscience – removes a whole layer of moral complexity of the story and thoroughly blunts the redemption arc. Hemsworth’s character is greatly enhanced from the story, in which he is little more than a heartless corporate tool. But in transformation Spider in the story of one man’s megalomaniac evil, the satirical momentum is also lost. This is no longer a valid critique of the corporate callousness of the big pharmaceutical companies. It’s David vs. techno Goliath and we just have to sit back and wait for him to turn the tables. Naturally, any page-to-screen adaptation of fiction will require some practical tweaks – it’s impossible to stretch “Escape from the Spider’s Head” into a two-hour movie without some serious embellishment. But the changes here betray not only the spirit of the original, but also its very essence.
Video: Spiderhead official trailer (Manchester Evening News)
Click to expand
When it comes to brawling, Netflix execs are acutely aware of the importance of a happy ending and how much viewers fear a dark ending. For example, they learn that Adam Sandler’s uplifting NBA drama Fuss was fully accepted by the publicwhile his previous (and far superior) Netflix drama, Uncut Gemsclearly wasn’t. (Virtuoso tense, hard to watch Gems received a rather pathetic 52% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes despite rave reviews.)
Now that the novelty of Netflix’s “destroyer” status is fading, it seems that Netflix is just as subject to the whims and demands of the mass market as any traditional film studio. Keep making difficult and obnoxious movies and eventually the subscribers will start pushing away, so the thought seems to be gone. The recent drop in Netflix subscribers has led to reports of a strategic rethink, including lowering the release volume of mid-budget films in favor of higher-budget films. But the challenge to unconventional content has always been one of the biggest benefits: the reason people signed up in the first place. FROM Spider — and not for the last time — Netflix has taken the path of least resistance. But sometimes, just sometimes, it’s about resistance.
Spider Head is out now on Netflix
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