What truly makes someone a superhero? Is it a supernatural power or is the person? Project Power creates a world where the superpowers are easily delivered in pill form, but the true heroes find the power inside themselves. This is one of the themes the film touches upon, but, like the short-term superpowers, its characters gain, the effectiveness is fleeting.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3) takes us into the streets of a lawless, a near-future version of New Orleans, where a new drug is making its way around the streets turning the city’s residents into human guinea pigs. Called Power, is a twist-activated, beautifully glimmering capsule with obscene powers. Once taken, it interacts with the individual drug taker’s DNA delivering five minutes of incredible superpowers.
The problem is that no one is quite sure what the results will be from user to user. For one taker it could deliver super strength, another may turn invisible, yet another will become a flaming human torch, and for the unluckiest of users, it could mean instant death. In a world where you feel powerless would you take the risk for a momentary rise to power? This game of bodily Russian roulette with its range of possibilities is quite a thrill to watch, raising pulses as we anticipate what the results of the drug will be.
It all sounds like the makings of a great film. If only Mattson Tomlin’s screenplay explored the premise in a way that unleashed some of its inner power. Instead, we get some remarkable moments and plot devices that often feel uninspired in their assembly – a super-powered procedural. Borrowing from films such as Limitless, X-Men, Robocop, interesting questions are proposed and left open or worse, under-explored. The lack of connective tissue prevents elevate is beyond feeling like a series of moments loosely strung together. Short spurts of more inspired dialogue are dispersed about, only to be interrupted with foot chases, special effects, and hectically edited, unevenly choreographed fight scenes.
While the main characters are likable and the performances are relatively strong for the genre, none are fleshed out to keep us fully invested in their plight. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is Frank the teeth-gritting New Orleans police officer trying to protect his beloved city. Art (Jamie Foxx) is the mysterious, man who has an ax to grind with the pill manufacturers. Dominique Fishback‘s Robin is a small-time teenage dealer with big dreams. When the three cross paths along the way is when the film finds its groove. Gordon-Levitt displays some of his usual charms, Foxx is gruff and cool sporting shades for half the film, but it is Fishback who is the standout here. The relatively new kid on the block demands your attention, stealing scenes with ease. She has a real presence, especially when meticulously dropping complex rhymes. She looks to be the next powerhouse talent. Remember her name.
The villains do not fare as well. They are surprisingly generic and forgettable. The stakes never feel all that high. The lack of consequence leads tup to a climax that fizzles instead of sizzles. Their motives, to ultimately weaponize Power, are a trope that has been played out too many times. It all falls kind of flat as nothing new is delivered here. The most memorable antagonist, Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro) had some potential but is never developed enough. Instead his biggest moment, literally, is disappointingly delivered via special effect.
With that said, the special effects and sound design are used to create the drug experience are exhilarating. It captures the feel of taking Power all while building up to the moment when the unpredictable fate of the user is revealed. Each pill-popping moment thrusts on screen with its own unique feel, a kinetic concoction of sights and sounds. They take us down to a cellular level, inside the user’s body as synopses fire around us at a rapid pace and blood pulses uncontrollably. Suddenly we viewing it from outside the body to see the triggering effects on the surrounding environment.
While the blend if cinematography and CGI create some intensely wild results during the drug sequences I found some of the other creative decisions to be too distracting at times. The fight scenes are edited in a fast and choppy way that drains the intensity out of the fight choreography. The attempts to be too stylish and does not translate, leaving me peeking around the obstructions as too much is crammed into the frame. The intentions are good but the execution would have been better used in smaller bites.
Project Power is the type of film meant to be seen in the more forgiving environment of a movie theater. The special effects would play well (especially Fishback’s flawless rapping) with buckets of popcorn, a big screen, surround sound, and an energetic audience. In the end, it feels like untapped potential. A deeper dig into the social aspects and the characters could have been the cohesive element missing. Instead, the film is not completely mindless but also not as cerebral as it could be. Like the drug, we are left with varying results. Use only as directed.
“Project Power” is streaming exclusively on Netflix.
Even with some invigorating moments “Project Power” fails to deliver the full dosage required to meet the desired results.