‘Spiderhead’ Ending Explained: Chris Hemsworth’s Thriller Comes With a Confusing Twist
Spiderhead on Netflix is a new sci-fi thriller that dares to ask the question: What if drugs were bad?
Directed by Joseph Kosinski, who recently had a big critical and financial win with Top Gun: Maverick, this movie is much smaller and more contained than you might expect. It’s an adaption of George Saunders’s 2010 dystopian short story, “Escape From Spiderhead,” which you can read in The New Yorker, and tells the story of an experimental prison where the inmates are used as human lab rats for a pharmaceutical company. But these experiments don’t exactly follow ethical scientific protocol.
The screenplay was adapted by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, and the small cast stars Chris Hemsworth, Miles Teller, and Jurnee Smollett in the lead roles. In adapting a short story into a feature-length movie, the writers added quite a few twists and turns. It’s a lot, and not everything adds up. But don’t worry, because Decider is here to help. If you were confused by Spiderhead, read on for a breakdown of the Spiderhead plot summary and the Spiderehead ending explained.
Fair warning: There will be a lot of Spiderhead spoilers from this point forward.What is Spiderhead about? Spiderhead plot summary:
Jeff (Miles Teller) is a convict serving time for manslaughter after he crashed a car while driving drunk, killing his friend. But he’s not serving time at an ordinary prison—he’s at a prison where he is allowed to roam free in the halls, where he’s served good food, and where there are no guards. The catch? Jeff and the other prisoners must partake in human drug trials for some decidedly experimental pharmaceuticals. This includes a drug that makes you laugh over tragedies, a drug that makes you see beauty in everything, and a drug that makes you fall in love. All of these trials are overseen by the boss, Steve Absenti (Chris Hemsworth) and Steve’s assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), who insist it is all for the greater good.
One day, Jeff is put in a trial with another test subject, Heather (Tess Haubrich). Both prisoners are given a dose of N-40, or “Luvactin.” Though they have never met before, Jeff and Heather instantly fall in love, have sex, and cuddle when it’s over. Then Absenti repeats the same experiment with Jeff and another woman, Sarah, who is older and less attractive. The results are the same: The drug makes Jeff have sex and fall in love with this woman. Absenti says this drug has the potential to help people who can’t love.
For the next trial, Absenti brings Jeff into the mission control room with him. In the observation room sit Heather and Sarah, the two women that Jeff slept with. Absenti tells Jeff that he is testing to see if Jeff has any residual feeling of affection for either woman now that the drug has worn off. He says that one of the woman will be injected with “Darkenfloxx,” a drug that causes unspeakable pain, and that Jeff must choose which woman will get it. Jeff says he doesn’t want either woman to be drugged, and that if he were forced to choose, the decision would be random. Absenti accepts this, and neither woman is drugged.
Meanwhile, when he is not participating in these trials, Jeff has been getting friendly with another inmate named Lizzy (Jurnee Smollett). But, apparently, he has a wife that Absenti lets him call on Fridays. We see Jeff leave a voicemail for her, and get the impression she is not taking his calls.
For the next trial, Absenti once again brings Jeff into the mission control room with him. This time, it’s just Heather in the observation room. Absenti says that while Jeff’s insistence that he wasn’t in love with either Heather or Sarah was good enough for him, “the committee” wants to see Jeff’s reaction to Heather on Darkenfloxx. Jeff watches Heather as she is tortured. But then Heather accidentally breaks her”MobiPak,” the device that administers her drugs. Absenti is unable to back off the DarkenFloxx, and Heather kills herself in the observation room.
While Absenti runs to deal with Heather, Jeff snoops in his drawers. He discovers a letterhead that shows this is Absenti’s company—meaning the “higher-ups” that he keeps blaming doesn’t exist. He also discovers a Bingo card with gold stars on it that correlate to the names of the drugs: N-40, I-16, and B-6—suggesting that Absenti is just making this up as he goes along, a mad scientist.
After Heather’s death, Absenti and Jeff get high on the laughing drug together. Absenti confesses to Jeff that his parents abandoned him to foster care when he was 8 years old. Later, Jeff and Lizzy discuss why they keep saying yes, or “Acknowledge,” to being drugged. Jeff confesses that he killed his wife in that drunk driving incident, and then Jeff and Lizzy sleep together.What is the Spiderheadending explained?
After he witnesses them mirroring each other’s language, Absenti realizes that Jeff and Lizzy have fallen in love. Absenti calls Jeff into the mission control room to watch as Lizzy is given DarkenFloxx, but Jeff refuses to say “Acknowledge.” The next day, back in the observation room, Lizzy tells him to get it over with, and confesses her crime: She forgot about her baby in a hot car and killed her.
Then Absenti abruptly starts laughing. Jeff reveals that he had Verlaine the assistant drug Absenti’s MobiPak. Jeff now controls Absenti’s fate. Jeff gives Absenti a big dose of DarkenFloxx, then explains that he figured it out: Absenti was never testing all these other drugs, he was testing an obedience drug, B6. That’s the twist—Absenti was trying to see how far he could push the prisoners to obey. Absenti admits this is true: They were testing for absolute obedience. But, Absenti said, B-6 failed, because Jeff proved that if you love something enough (in Jeff’s case, Lizzy) you can disobey.
Absenti, using this same logic, overpowers the drugs in his system, because he loves his company so much. (Or something.) Jeff and Absenti tussle, and Absenti damages his MobiPak. The drugs in his system go haywire. Jeff rescues Lizzy, and the two escape the prison. The police are on their way, but Absenti escapes too, via his private water jet. But the drugs are still going wild in Absenti’s system. One of the drugs that we saw Jeff on at the beginning of the movie—the one that made him see a nuclear wasteland as a beautiful landscape—makes Absenti see a sunset, where he should have seen a mountainside. Absenti thinks he’s flying off into the sunset, but in reality, he crashes into a cliff.
Jeff and Lizzy watch the crash as they escape in the speedboat. Jeff muses in a voice-over that he wishes there were a self-forgiveness drug, but that there isn’t. “So we’re gonna have to do it for ourselves,” Jeff concludes. And with that, the movie ends.
What does it all mean? Maybe that drugs won’t solve the intrinsic problems that come with being human. If you try to detach yourself from reality, you may think you find your happily ever after—but in reality, you’ll be crashing into a mountainside.How does the “Escape From Spiderhead” short story end?
For what it’s worth, the George Saunders short story, “Escape from Spiderhead,” which you can read in The New Yorker, ends very differently. Rather than being forced to kill another prisoner with DarkenFloxx, Jeff decides to give DarkenFloxx to himself and takes his own life. In the final line of the story, Jeff muses, “I was happy, so happy, because for the first time in years, and forevermore, I had not killed, and never would.”
A much darker ending, to be sure, but Hollywood is going to Hollywood!