Directors: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Writer: Mattson Tomlin
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback
Cinematographer: Michael Simmonds
Editor: Jeff McEvoy
Streaming on: Netflix
So many films harp on about the permanence and life-altering effects of gaining superpowers that it’s refreshing to find one that treats powers like a jacket one can shrug on and off at will. In Project Power, the source of these powers is a pill named, well, Power that unlocks a different ability in each user for exactly five minutes. The catch is that there’s no way of knowing what power you’ll get (regeneration? super strength?) until you take one.
In keeping with the theme of their last documentary, Catfish (2010), directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman pull a bait-and-switch, flirting with the allure of great power but choosing to focus the story on the powerless instead. Their camera lingers over graffitied neighbourhoods and cramped apartments in New Orleans, where aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback) covertly peddles Power pills because her mother needs expensive surgery and lacks health insurance. Side effects of the drug include death by overdose or spontaneous combustion, making her customers, members of the Black community from the city’s low-income areas, unwitting test subjects.
The movie’s most crushing indictment of the genre comes when Robin hears about a government project to create superheroes. “Why’d they wanna make superheroes?” she asks, uncomprehendingly. There are clearly more pressing issues to be resolved first, is the subtext. There are references to the opioid crisis, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the education system’s failure to uplift Black students. A character brings up Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were harvested without her consent in the 1950s and are still used in research today. Her story mirrors that of the superpowered Tracy (Kyanna Simpson), who’s kidnapped so her cells can be synthesized into the drug and whose father Art (Jamie Foxx) is on a quest to get her back.
When Art teams up with Robin, and pill-popping cop Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) to put a stop to Power’s production, you get the sense that in another superhero movie, they’d be ordinary citizens watching their homes become collateral damage as superheroes duke it out overhead. Here, they find themselves driving the plot.
So far, so good. Project Power’s ambitious ideas, however, are let down by the execution. Tepid storytelling blunts its point about how efforts to disrupt the system always fail in favour of power being concentrated in the hands of the elite. In its quest to sidestep genre conventions, the film also jettisons excitement. The powers have their basis in animal abilities, like an octopus’ camouflaging technique, but instantly call to mind the visual familiarity of the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Luke Cage. There’s little that feels fresh.
The film also rarely capitalizes on the urgency of the five-minute window in which those powers are operational. The sale of wristwatches has skyrocketed in this universe, not that it matters – every fight scene wraps up with the bad guy being vanquished long before the clock runs out. The unpredictability of the pill’s nature, an exciting variable, is also squandered. The film skips ahead to six weeks after the drug is first distributed, a period in which everyone’s figured out what their powers are and how to use them to their advantage. Even then, the drug, meant to “topple governments”, only inspires a spurt of local crimes. The consequences of powering up too often are interesting – repeated activation of the thermoregulating power results in severe burns – but it’s only side characters who suffer.
The protagonists are never truly in danger, which lowers the stakes. They also become flat and one-note over time, with only the cast’s combined star power and charisma keeping the film watchable. It’s only when the film gravitates back to the conventions of superhero movies and unleashes a CGI volley towards the end that we get its most genuinely thrilling moment. Like its titular drug, Project Power burns bright, but only briefly, before fizzling out once again.