Netflix’s Project Power Review: A fresh, superpowered concept nearly let down by a lackluster story
With an incredibly original concept and a star-studded cast, Netflix looks to close out the summer with an action-packed, superpowered blowout in the form of Project Power.
What’s initially powerful about Project Power is its original concept that places viewers into a world where superpowers could be in the palm of your hand. A new pill has hit the underground drug world of New Orleans that allows however swallows it to go on new kind of high that comes in to form of superpowers. The catch, though, is that the power only last for five minutes and users have no idea what power they could get. With one pill, users could end up bursting in flames, become bulletproof, or even turn invisible – or they could just explode. However, there’re lasting effects that go beyond just bad health defects as there’s an underground plot to put these pills on the mainstream market.
It’s such a unique concept that I’m genuinely surprised hasn’t been done on this level because the possibilities are endless. There’s a great chance for immense surprise and suspense of someone taking the pill and suddenly gaining random superpowers in just seconds or just explode in an instant. Not to mention, with the powers being random, there’s no shortage of imaginative powers that could come into play and create a captivating superhero experience like no other. For the most part, the film lives up to and exceeds its potential with its world-building, but misses the mark in its execution and the bland story it puts behind it.
The film is definitely a strong depiction of how quickly hard drugs can consume a community as we see this “power pill” ravage the New Orleans community and cause things to run wild. It’s incredibly fascinating to watch as someone robs a bank while they can remain invisible and a lot of fun to see superpowers in the hand of the average person. With them only having powers for just five minutes, they have to act fast and it fits perfectly with how co-directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost showcase some really fun sequences. Whether it’s someone on the run from a user that’s burst into a fiery threat, an incredibly fun and fast-paced chase to hunt down an invisible man, or even some close-quarters combat, Schulman and Joost really give the action a big pulse through great camera movement as well as well-utilized visual with the powers. The visual effects are pretty impressive, for the most part, and the trippy visuals that come when someone takes the pill really adds to the moment.
There’s also some interesting lore and world-building with how people react to the presence of this new drug and its “side-effects.” Seeing Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), a local drug dealer, have half of his face have burn wounds because of his heavy use of the power pill is harshly reminiscent of photos that you see of how people look after they’ve used drugs. Even the concept of a version of the pill just causing you to explode after one hit is strongly tied to what can happen to people who do inhalants or other hard drugs. The way the film’s main drug actually ties itself to the harmful effects of real-world drug use is very compelling and nicely strips away the fantasy allure of the pill. Hell, even when Frank (Joseph Gordon Levitt), a police officer, takes a drug that makes him bulletproof, he still has blood vessels pop in his eye when he’s shot in the head and the bullet even leaves an imprint. It’s another great connection to real-life drug use that’s incredibly intriguing as five minutes of immortality and power and can steal leave harmful effect after the high is gone.
The “randomness” of the powers isn’t well executed, though, as it’s never fully utilized to create a sense of surprise or suspense. While the visuals of the drugs taking effect on the body are cool and set up the powers well, they also spoil what powers we’re going to be seeing and make it less surprising when the powers come out to play. Characters also seemed unafraid of swallowing the pill, so the danger of them possibly exploding or even overdosing fades quickly. Eventually, the whole concept of people taking the pills starts to lose its luster because the consequences start to seem minimal and even when a tragic moment seems to appear in the film’s final moments, but is wiped away all too easily.
The overall story isn’t much better as it features the same kind of government corruption that we’ve seen in films like The First Purge and once the curtain is peeled back on the pills, there’s no real interesting answers worth exploring. The film’s main antagonist isn’t fleshed out at all so there’s nothing too compelling about what Frank, Art (Jamie Foxx), and Robin (Dominique Fishback) are fighting against. Even their whole plan for moving the pills across the U.S. isn’t all that new or exciting and it’s one of weakest elements of the whole film. The information we learn behind the power pills is also kind of bland and the kind animal genetic ideas we’ve seen before and aren’t given any kind of additional details to make it unique. The script also needs a strong punch-up as it just utilizes recycled comic and action lines that drag down the great concept and even has Gordon-Levitt do a lifeless Clint Eastwood impression.
Frankly, if this film didn’t have fun characters and a solid leading trio, it would really just be an interesting concept. Thankfully though, these three have great chemistry with one another and each take on likeable characters with compelling motivations and mindsets to make them stand out. Foxx continues to prove himself as likeable charmer as Art, a drifter with a mysterious backstory that connects to the power pills showing up in New Orleans, and makes his desperation for his hidden motivations very compelling. Gordon-Levitt is also a lot of fun as Frank with him being a genuine street cop, Saints jersey in all, and gives some life to the generic lines he’s given. Frankly, these two are the kind of heroes you root for the whole way and they make it a lot of fun to be there with their lively performances.
The big standout of the trio is really Fishback as she makes Robin, a teenage drug dealer, charismatic and capable. While she may never take a pill or gain any powers of her own, there’s a deep strength within her that’s slowly brought out throughout the film. Her desires to help her ailing mother any way possible, regardless of legality, makes her instantly admirable and the way that she never easily believes what she’s told shows her capabilities. Not to mention, Fishback spits bars like a boss and her rap sequences are easily some of the best moments in the film as she’s just too irresistibly awesome in these moments to hate. It’s definitely a strong showing of her wide range of talents and I’m keeping my fingers cross that we’ll get to see more of her in the future – maybe even a future sequel to this.
Project Power boasts a powerful concept and characters that are visually intriguing and compelling enough to make for a solid watch, but are hindered by a lackluster story and poorly executed aspects that drag down some of the film’s ideas. Personally, there’s still plenty to explore with the world Project Power sets up and it wouldn’t be surprising for Netflix to take advantage of it through a sequel or spinoff series that this film totally earns.