Netflix’s “Spiderhead” is loosely based on a George Saunders short story, “Escape from Spiderhead”. In the story, a researcher attempts to make use of the malleability of the mind by testing a variety of brain chemical enhancing or depleting drugs on inmates.
The ending asks us to think about the value of negative emotions such as regret, guilt, and shame. His love interest, played by “Lovecraft Country” vet Jurnee Smollett, helps him tamper with his subjects’ brains to make them more compliant. He crashes into the side of a mountain and presumably dies, while she makes it to safety in a speedboat.
The film suggests that embracing our feelings of abandonment and rejection is fundamental to survival. Despite their successful escape, Spiderhead’s characters alternate between adrenaline-fueled elation and deep, inadvertent sorrow. In short, they’re both filled to the brim with genuine feelings and confronted with pain, regret, shame, remorse, and intermittent glimpses of hope.
This relatively happy and uplifting ending differs wildly from that of George Saunders’ short story, but allows the filmmakers to explore the same truth through a different and more direct lens. Netflix’s “Spiderhead” is a re-imagining of Neil Saunders’ novel “Escape from Spiderhead,” which explores the idea that our need to avoid bad feelings keeps us imprisoned, compliant, addicted, and all too willing to subject ourselves to technologies, cultural norms, and structures that reinforce and profit from this instinctual desperation.
The film’s ending asks us to see and embrace life as it truly is — in all its frequently gut-wrenching glory, without deluding ourselves with illusions of control, fulfillment, or reprieve. The film stops short of suggesting that the use of any and all drugs that impact or medicate the mind is, in itself, a bad thing. The beatific, awesome landscape surrounding the facility is at once majestic and menacing; it is both soothing and dangerous. In his final, drug-clouded view of it, Abnesti sees only purity, goodness, and light, and dies as a result. He may be behind the controls, but he’s lost control entirely.