In the dystopian world of sci-fi, the metaphor of prison can convey complex truths about our current system. But does it encourage empathy for actual prisoners?
Science-fiction films like The Matrix often generalize the experience of mass incarceration in order to create a sense of increased drama. The new Netflix film Spiderhead makes that connection explicit; its story of futuristic unfreedom is set in an actual prison. By focusing on characters who are actually incarcerated, the movie highlights the issue with appropriating the experiences of prisoners—even as Spiderhead, with all its sympathy for prisoners, remains locked into those same problems.
The Matrix, as virtually every moviegoer knows, at first looks like it is set in the contemporary, everyday world of the late ’90s. But the protagonist, Neo, soon learns that reality as he knows it is an illusion. The year is actually something like 2199; the world is controlled by sentient computers, who keep human beings sedated and immobile in vats to harvest their energy. The world we know is a false projection, a “prison for your mind.” The whole earth is enslaved by machines.
The Matrix was released in 1999, at the tail end of a period of extreme anti-crime rhetoric and sweeping anti-crime legislation. Between 1991 and 1998, the number of prisoners in the US rose from 789,610 to 1,252,830. The incarceration rate rose 47%. The Matrix essentially extrapolates that terrifying surge indefinitely. Eventually, everyone is in prison, subject to punishment and torture by the sadistic Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving.)
Spiderhead picks up The Matrix’s prison-as-mind-control metaphor and re-grounds it by applying it to actual prisoners. In the film, inmates of a state penitentiary volunteer to serve as guinea pigs for new drug treatments. In return, they are moved for testing to the minimum security island facility of Spiderhead.
The drugs allow the chief researcher, Steve Abnesti (played by an oleaginously cheerful Chris Hemsworth) to control prisoner’s minds, perceptions, and emotions. With the proper injections, he can make prisoners laugh uncontrollably at anything, fear common objects like staplers, or experience terrifying, suicidal, existential misery and dread. He can also make them fall wildly in love with each other.
“Spiderhead understands that a prison of the mind isn’t a metaphor. It’s just a prison.”
Making people fall in love with each other leads to frantic sexual activity, as you’d imagine. That’s played for laughs to some degree. But the script also links it to prison rape, a connection that highlights the prisoner’s powerlessness. Incarcerated people, in theory, have some rights and some autonomy. In the film, they’re supposed to be able to say “no” each time the drugs are administered. In theory, they’re supposed to be safe in actual prisons from sexual assault.
The truth, though, is that even in a minimum security facility, incarcerated people have little protection from manipulation and bullying. Steve lies to his charges about his goals, about their options, about their free-will, and they have little recourse. He can make them fear; he can make them despair; he can violate their ability to sexually consent. That’s because he has control of their brains. But it’s also, and first, because he has control of their bodies. Spiderhead understands that a prison of the mind isn’t a metaphor. It’s just a prison.
The Matrix doesn’t make that connection explicitly, which means that its critique of unfreedom and imprisonment doesn’t really link up to, or encourage, any sympathy for actual prisoners. Instead, the warnings about mind control and entrapment are so generalized that they can be picked up by anyone for virtually any cause.
The Wachowski sisters, who are trans, intended the movie—at least in part—as a metaphor for trans experience and enforced cis conformity. But as scholar David M. Higgins has pointed out, it’s also been picked up by misogynist men’s rights activists, who insist that the world is controlled by evil drone-like feminists, and that men need to free themselves from this dark world of infantilization, imprisonment, and feminization. The metaphor of imprisonment can be radicalizing. Misogynists claiming to be victims have engaged on more than one occasion in terrorist violence.
Abstracting the experience of being behind bars also abstracts political outrage over, or political will around, mass incarceration. If everyone is really imprisoned by the system, there’s no reason to focus on the racism, the cruelty, or the injustice of prison in particular.
Spiderhead, though, is about prisoners, and is at least somewhat concerned with their specific plight. Jeff (Miles Teller) and Rachel (Jurnee Smollett), the two main protagonists, both committed serious crimes. But the film takes care to demonstrate their remorse, and to insist that they still have a moral compass despite—or even because of—their heinous acts.
Prisoners have, in many cases, done bad things, and that’s often used to justify all manner of extreme punishments. For instance, Steve tries to get Jeff to torture Rachel by telling him what she did, and saying she deserves to suffer. But jailers themselves aren’t saints. If you give them absolute power over someone who you say deserves to suffer, what is likely to happen? If the violence Jeff committed is wrong (and Jeff himself believes it is) then how is the violence that Steve commits right or just?
Spiderhead admirably raises difficult questions about prison as an institution and a real, material injustice. But ultimately it turns from its own insights back into the matrix of prison as a metaphor.
Jeff and Rachel are sympathetic. But other prisoners are presented as over-muscled, over-aggressive, ugly, violent stereotypes. Our heroes even have to battle these bad prisoners for their freedom in a final confused and ill-advised action sequence. Similarly, Steve is presented, not as an example of a structural injustice, but as a uniquely corrupt bad apple. He misuses the machinery of incarceration for his own ideology and profit, and deserves imprisonment himself.
“In Spiderhead, incarceration is bad primarily because it’s a metaphor for broader technologies of control, rather than because imprisoning people is morally wrong.”
In Spiderhead, some prisoners are good; some wardens are bad. But most prisons in the real world don’t inject science-fiction mind-control drugs. They just overuse tranquilizers to keep prisoners docile. So they’re fine.
Perhaps most telling is the fact that the ultimate fear in Spiderhead is that the oppression in prison will get out. After he’s done with his trials behind bars, Steve ultimately wants to use his drugs to control everyone. Viewers are supposed to sympathize with (some) prisoners. But the real worry is that viewers will become prisoners. Prison is the blueprint for a universal matrix. In Spiderhead, incarceration is bad primarily because it’s a metaphor for broader technologies of control, rather than because imprisoning people is morally wrong.
It’s no accident, either, that Jeff—the prisoner we sympathize with and cheer on—is a white man. In real life, prisoners are, of course, disproportionately Black men and men of color. The problem with treating prison as a universal metaphor is that it’s not in fact a universally distributed injustice. Rather, prison is an institution which is especially designed to target and oppress particular marginalized groups.
Spiderhead cuts closer to the truth, in acknowledging that unfreedom is uneven. Everyone is not targeted by the state to the same degree. Some people are behind bars, some people aren’t and the difference has material consequences. But, like The Matrix and its many imitators, the film still ends up insisting that the real threat of imprisonment is to those who are already free.