Project Power review: Netflix superhero film struggles to make sense

It’s a seductive moral conundrum: would you risk death for the possibility of greatness? Yet, in the hands of ‘Catfish’ directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, it’s a question left hanging in the air

Clarisse Loughrey
Thursday 13 August 2020 16:44
Project Power trailer

Dir: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman. Starring: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Machine Gun Kelly, Rodrigo Santoro, Amy Landecker. 15 cert, 111 mins

Netflix’s Project Power offers a new, devilish twist on Russian roulette. You take a pill, and it gives you superpowers – but there’s no way to predict what they will be. You might be able to lift a car with your bare hands. You might repel bullets. There’s a chance you will simply explode. It’s a seductive moral conundrum: would you risk death for the possibility of greatness? Yet, in the hands of Catfish directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, it’s a question left hanging in the air, never becoming more than a half-formed thought.

Instead, we’re introduced to Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New Orleans cop who takes the street drug Power to “level the playing field” now that superpowered criminals are wiping out whole precincts. He’s on the trail of Art (Jamie Foxx), thought to be the main supplier of Power in the city, but whose real motivations seem muddied. We watch him hunt down dealers, demanding they tell him the location of the elusive Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro), as recurring visions of his tragic backstory infect his sanity.

One of his targets is just a teenager. Robin (Dominique Fishback) has a good heart – she does her best to support her diabetic mother, while dreaming of becoming “the next Cardi B”. Fishback’s performance is the most memorable thing about Project Power. She’s the quiet, human force in a film that trades in sound and fury. Its narrative is so dense, it becomes tangled in its own revelations.

The film strives to make Power sound scientifically plausible, as if a mumbled aside about DNA and radiation wouldn’t easily do the trick. The pill is supposed to awaken “the genetic potential hidden in our DNA”. There’s also mention of the evolutionary paths of animals. Someone at one point reveals that Power gives them the abilities of the pistol shrimp, which creates shockwaves that instantly vaporise its foes. But where in our DNA do these animal powers come from? What determines which power you get? And why does the effect only last five minutes? Oddly, you don’t see anyone walking around with jets of ink spewing from an unnamed orifice.

Mattson Tomlin, also a writer on the new Batman film, tries to wring out a little social consciousness from Project Power’s central premise. Government corruption has allowed a corporate giant to use the country’s population as “lab rats” for their dodgy substance. The script seems delighted to have landed on the name Power – one that instantly invokes all of society’s evils, from economic inequality to white supremacy. But it struggles to connect the dots. “Power goes where it always goes, to the people that already have it,” is a neat thing to have Art say, but it sounds odd when he’s talking about a pill that essentially democratises superpowers. And any self-seriousness that the film might possess feels undercut by its obsession with pop culture – when a woman starts shooting ice out of her hands, a character responds, with giddy satisfaction, that it’s “just like Frozen!”

Joost and Schulman place their camera in the strangest of places. It sits on the muzzle of a gun. It watches a fight scene play out from behind the thick glass of an isolation chamber. The action sequences are impressively laid out, but rendered almost incomprehensible by the constant cutting between shots. City streets at night are drowned in a sickly, fluorescent glow. But it’s a mere imitation of atmosphere – not atmosphere itself.

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