There was a time when anyone labeled a “genius” in a film had a certain style. They were eccentric, often with a set of quirks modeled on the 20th Century’s paradigm of super-intelligence, Albert Einstein. Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in Back to the Future has Einstein’s crazy hair and Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) in The Fly shares his habit of wearing identical clothes every day to conserve brainpower. Geniuses were often home tinkerers, absent-minded, and not interested in matters of the world. At the other end of the spectrum, they were post-hippy idealists, such as Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) in Tron — at odds with corporate bad guys trying to crush their dream. However, the latest genius to grace our screens is a rather different beast. In fact, he’s Chris Hemsworth.
In Joseph Kosinski’s new film, Spiderhead, Hemsworth plays Steve Abnesti, a pharmaceutical/tech genius who has created a suite of emotion-altering drugs. At an island facility, Abnesti tests these drugs on convicts such as Jeff (Miles Teller), who has signed up for the program to get out of the mainstream prison system.
When Hemsworth’s character flies in on a seaplane to his remote island paradise (filmed in Queensland, Australia), it’s clear he’s a very different proposition to the nutty professors of old. Abnesti is more like a Bond villain. His testing facility/prison is a concrete palace, shaped very conspicuously like a set of male genitalia. Inside, there’s an “open door” policy for the prisoners where they can enjoy snacks, arcade machines, and ping pong in an environment that invokes the mythical workplaces of the tech giants. However, with the muzak versions of Steely Dan and Abnesti’s motivational messages playing through the speakers, it also resembles the hospital from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Abnesti clearly isn’t one of those geniuses fighting against “the man.” He is the man, although he wouldn’t want anyone to know that. He remembers people’s birthdays and needles Jeff about the time he fetched him some athlete’s foot powder – a comically passive-aggressive ploy to be seen as a “cool boss.” His self-mythologizing about making a better world echoes the words of so many contemporary tech leaders. He has the untouchable veneer of the super rich — the speedboat, the isolated home, the perfect teeth — that covers a middlebrow love of yacht rock and some serious daddy issues. Abnesti has quirky moments, self-referentially playing Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science” before an experiment, but he’s no Doc Brown. Everything about him is prepared for the time when his company is floated on the stock exchange.
Hemsworth is an excellent choice to play Abnesti, bringing all his charisma to a character who could have been a stereotypical mad scientist. “The beautiful people get away with too much,” he tells Jeff when an attractive prisoner turns up late for an experiment, before admitting that he’s been guilty of the same. Oscar Isaac was similarly compelling as another isolated genius in Ex Machina. In that film, his pursuit of artificial intelligence suggested a demiurge creating life for his own amusement. Then there’s the very model of a modern tech wizard, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark is a reformed weapons hustler with the best of intentions, although his over-protective urges often lead to tragedy. Even Mark Ruffalo’s sympathetic scientists Bruce Banner and Louis Read (The Adam Project) are beset by emotional issues that compromise their work. The new players in the scientist roles may be starrier than ever, but they’re also more complex.
Far from the comical dopiness of Thor, Hemsworth brings driven intelligence to Abnesti, although his emotion-altering drugs are innately questionable. With brand-ready names like “Luvactin,” they have the power to make subjects see beauty where this is none or to develop intense fear, all controlled by a phone app. The massive commercial and military applications are only too clear. Abnesti scolds his loyal assistant, Verlaine (Mark Paguio), for thinking too small when he suggests “Laffodil” be sold to comedy clubs. In the later stages of the film, once Abnesti’s methods become increasingly coercive, Jeff asks Verlaine why he would choose to work for such a person. “There’s so few geniuses,” is the response.
As a cautionary tale of a charismatic tech leader, Spiderhead will remind audiences of Elizabeth Holmes (Amanda Seyfried) in The Dropout. Like Abnesti, Holmes disguises her unethical activities with slick presentation and the pretense of good science. She has loyal followers who have bought into her cult of personality, enticed by the prospect of working with an honest-to-goodness genius. Abnesti similarly hides behind a fictitious “protocol committee” to excuse his manipulations and undertakes tests that have flawed scientific method. Like Holmes, he’s locked into a path that will lead either to glory or the courtroom. “This is frontier stuff,” he tells Verlaine, by way of excusing his application of the mind-crushing “Darkenfloxx.” In one telling conversation with Jeff, he admits that the facility is as much a prison for him as the test subjects. There’s simply no turning back.
Based on a 2010 short story by Lincoln in the Bardo author, George Saunders, Spiderhead’s source material was prescient in using drug testing as a metaphor for the manipulations of social media and mobile technology. In Spiderhead the apparent aim of tweaking emotions covers a much darker intent — covert control of thoughts and the creation of a compliant citizen. Significantly the test subjects are required to say “acknowledge” before the drugs can be administered, a word straight from the terms and conditions of our apps. In one moment of realization, Jeff asks himself, “Why do we keep saying yes?”
The testing environment recalls research such as the Stanford Prison Experiment and the work of Stanley Milgram, which probed the willingness of test subjects to follow orders. Their findings suggested that in the right surroundings and with a suitable authority figure calling the shots (such as a scientist or a prison guard), people would become blindly compliant. However, Abnesti is a more modern manipulator and his methods more subtle. In many ways he’s akin to Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond in Jurassic Park, a businessman whose plans for the commercialization of a scientific product trump all ethical considerations.
Abnesti is also a shadow version of Flynn from Tron in his appropriation of the language of the new age to cover cynical motives. He talks about love, peace, and making the world a better place through his technology. But we’ve heard the same words from the tech leaders of the real world as they stand before various committees, justifying their inventions and the chaos they’ve wreaked. They’re more like the older Flynn of Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy, inventors whose creations have exceeded their control. All that’s left is a retrospective justification for some very poor decisions.
Ultimately, the new type of genius we see in films reflects our increasingly troubled relationship with the people who wield technological power. At best, they’re anti-heroes rather than the avuncular figures of Einstein or Doc Brown, although perhaps that always was a naive fantasy. Einstein’s discoveries did, after all, pave the way for the development of the atomic bomb. It would be easier to go back in time than put that genie back in the bottle. The choice of magnetic stars such as Hemsworth and Seyfried to portray these new science magnates is an accurate depiction of the way they craft themselves in the real world. In the case of Elizabeth Holmes the status of “genius” was a complete construct, held up by the application of lots of money and influential friends.
That today’s geniuses and visionaries on film have a lot more star power than the oddballs of yesteryear is no doubt an acknowledgement of their increasing status. These are the new billionaires whose lives we can only dream about. While the home-made inventions in Back to the Future and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids led to fantastic scenarios, they could be fixed eventually. The creations of our new tech geniuses, both on film and in real life, have earth-changing consequences that are harder to correct.