Imagine a world in which superpowers exist, but are (for now) only unlocked by taking an illegal, sinisterly-produced pill from a shady drug company. That’s the premise we’re getting in Project Power, the latest Netflix original from Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. The pair previously co-directed Catfish, Paranormal Activity 3 and 4, and Nerve together. Project Power was penned by Mattson Tomlin who has a credit on the upcoming The Batman.
The superpower idea is well worn and not new at all, though Project Power puts some constraints on the powers in this universe. For starters, the effect of the pill only lasts five minutes, meaning the users have to get rather selective when putting it to use. And secondly, users don’t know what power they have to unlock until they’ve taken it for the first time.
Some pill poppers will get your standard array of level-ups like super strength, speed, tough skin, and really anything else you’ve come across in hours of comic book reading. But the pill doesn’t take for everyone, some it simply kills by overwhelming an unprepared system. The first time you take it amounts to true Russian Roulette.
Project Power stars Jamie Foxx as Art, an ex-military guy gone rogue who’s on a vigilante-like mission to rescue his daughter after she was captured by the drug company responsible for the power drug. Think John Creasy in Man on Fire or Bryan Mills in Taken. We get the sense that he and his daughter were targeted because of their genetic makeup, though it’s only through passing flashbacks and comments.
Our first real look at the power produced by these pills is when Art confronts a young dealer in a rundown New Orleans apartment building. For this dude, the power unlocked by the pill makes him a human fireball and it’s obvious that those who pop these things can very much do so at their own risk.
Along the way Art meets up with Robin (Dominue Fishback), a young aspiring rapper whose slinging Power on the side to pay for a surgery for her mother. And there’s also Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a New Orleans police officer who has a grand sense of justice and honor, but also has no problem taking power pills to stop other guys “abusing” the drug.
The three characters dovetail in the search for Art’s daughter as they make their way through New Orleans, trying to unlock the mystery of who is making the drug and why. We catch up with the effects of the drug in a society where folks have already been using it for, what could be, quite awhile. In the world of Project Power it’s a rather established street drug and we’re given the sense that plenty of people have used it for their own criminal gains. Schulman and Joost use the city to their advantage in the production with a number of different references to the pain New Orleans has already seen, corruption in the system and the music at its backbone. It’s a valiant effort, though a little heavy-handed at times.
Project Power has some interesting ideas, nothing all that unique from a superpower perspective, but intriguing nonetheless as the basis for a feature film. Unfortunately, it stumbles in a number of different ways. Throughout the entire movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had missed something or that this might even be a companion movie or sequel, the previous I had failed to view. There were a number of threads to pull, but each stopped short from fully unraveling the knot.
This is likely a byproduct of nearly every part of the movie, from the plot, to the powers, to the characters being spread just a little too thin. While the essential mechanics of Project Power are pretty simple, the movie never dives all that deep into any one piece. It’s almost like Schulman and Joost had a certain amount of boxes to check without worrying if all the pieces lined up together.
While visually a solid flick, especially in the transformative nature of the pills’ powers, Project Power contains too many been-there-done-that moments. We’re never given enough time to truly care about any single aspect of the movie because we’re just ferried through the experience without slowing down to breathe.
What is Art’s background and how did he end up truly in this spot fighting for his daughter’s life? How did Frank land in the middle of this power pill war and how long has he been using? Who exactly is this drug company with near-limitless reach and resources, but flying well below the corruption radar? And just how pervasive is the use of this drug in the world? I had tons of questions, but the movie provided very few answers. In that respect, Project Power is a disappointing watch.
Sure, they leave the world open at the end to expand if there’s a call for it. But I think that Project Power would work much better as a television show, spread out over a number of different episodes rather than confined to a tight two hours. This is maybe the premise’s biggest miss in that the ideas floated are compelling and cool, as are the characters, but we just don’t get enough time with any of them.
Overall, Project Power is a light watch, easy to tune in and out of and easy to forget as soon as it’s over. It shouldn’t be this way but Netflix, in an effort to possibly just reverse engineer “good” movie experiences for its viewers, missed a chance at a solid premise with a great cast. As a result, it’s impossible to give Project Power anything but a negative review.