The idea behind the new Netflix movie Project Power is incredibly potent. In the world of the movie, superpowers aren’t something you’re born with, or gain via a bite from a radioactive spider. They come from pills that activate the user’s hidden power for five minutes. What’s more, nobody knows what superpower they’ll have until they take the pill — at which point, a few unlucky users just explode into a mess of blood and guts.
The high of taking the drug — called Power — is represented by Requiem for a Dream-esque splashes of color and cells that last for split seconds, an effect that’s a handy metaphor for Project Power itself. Directed by Catfish’s Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman from a script by The Batman’s Mattson Tomlin, Project Power’s burst of color comes from its central conceit and Joost and Schulman’s sense of style. It’s bright and attractive, but it fizzles out quickly. Tomlin’s idea is innovative, but the story he tells with it is tired.
Project Power protagonist Robin (Dominique Fishback) is a collection of clichés: She’s a high schooler and would-be rapper who deals drugs in order to care for her ailing mother. She works with Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop, to help him keep an eye on who’s buying what, as well as to supply him with Power. While the police are cracking down on Power use and distribution in the city, Frank sees the drug as leveling the playing field against criminals, since it makes him bulletproof. And Art (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious former soldier, crashes into both of their lives when he kidnaps Robin in an attempt to get to Power’s source.
Their race to stop Power from being widely distributed and wreaking havoc is fairly formulaic. So is the revelation that Art is looking for his kidnapped daughter, which instantly bonds him with the fatherless Robin. Meanwhile, Frank is forced to reckon with the fact that the police department might, in fact, be corrupt.
A few scenes and details stand out: one character’s power turns him into a version of the Human Torch, which makes him a deadly foe, but also leaves him with severe burns. On top of that, the superpowers are given an intriguing source: all of the powers are based in nature, mimicking an armadillo’s shell or a lizard’s capability for regeneration. But the standout moments are rare. Tomlin’s script ends up almost ignoring Power’s Limitless factor — the five-minute ticking clock and the idea of being able to attain extraordinary abilities through pharmaceuticals — as the story juggles social commentary with superhero antics.
Project Power takes place in New Orleans, and there are a few veiled references to Hurricane Katrina and the government’s poor emergency response, as well as the opioid crisis and the systemic disadvantages faced by Black women. But they’re only references — attempts at depth belied by Robin’s facile characterization. They’re never never expanded upon past the shallow introduction of the initial concepts. (It’s worth noting that the film’s directors, producers, and writer are all white.)
Joost and Schulman are lucky, as such, that Project Power is high on star power, as Fishback (easily the standout of HBO’s The Deuce), Foxx, and (to a lesser extent) Gordon-Levitt make the caricatures they’re playing compelling through sheer charisma. Fishback’s confidence gives her character a liveliness that extends past her stereotypical background, and Foxx’s charm turns him into a more endearing version of Liam Neeson’s schticky Taken character.
A few inventively staged scenes help move things along — one fight is seen entirely through a pane of slowly freezing glass — and the jittery camerawork makes Project Power feel grittier than its more mainstream counterparts. But the most interesting aspect of Power — the period of time when the drug was first released, when people with superpowers were running around willy-nilly — is relegated to a “six weeks later” time skip. Power is supposed to be uncontrollable, but the story takes place in a world which mostly seems to have figured it out. Almost everyone already seems to know what their power is, and how to effectively use the pill. Only a select few nameless peons deal with the risk of exploding.
The end of Project Power sets up a sequel, but this is the rare case where a prequel would be more worthwhile. The unpredictability of the movie’s superpowers is what makes them new and interesting, but Project Power launches into a part of the timeline that renders them partially moot. In a movie where the concept should be the thing, the stars end up saving the show, smoothing over the script’s clumsy attempts at addressing race, and bringing enough star power to the screen to at least briefly obscure the film’s hollow center.
Project Power is streaming on Netflix now.