One pill. Five minutes. Unimaginable power. With a sleek sales pitch and star-studded cast to boot, Netflix delved into the superhero genre with its latest offering, Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (the duo that helmed 2016’s Nerve). This sci-fi action thriller thrusts us into near-future New Orleans, plagued by a new designer drug promising random superpowers to those who fancy a hit. The catch – only five minutes to ride that ephemeral high before the effects wear off. Boasting household names Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and an impressive performance from rising star Dominque Fishback, Project Power shaped up to be an exciting breath of fresh air for an increasingly oversaturated genre.

“Project Power is as half-baked as its eponymous drug, an attempt at something more that falls short of its true potential.”

It’s not the first time a superhero film has attempted to subvert the genre’s tropes. Notably, Chronicle danced with the idea of “bringing power to the people” back in 2012. Chronicle told the story of unassuming teenagers who gained telekinetic abilities, before coming to the sobering conclusion that because power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. But while Josh Trank’s found-footage feature elegantly deconstructed our rose-coloured conception of super-heroism, Project Power doesn’t quite know what it wants to say. Ultimately, Project Power is as half-baked as its eponymous drug, an attempt at something more that falls short of its true potential.


Teenage dealer Robin (Fishback) sells Power on the streets, hoping to fund her diabetic mother’s expensive treatment. One of her regulars is Frank Shaver (Gordon-Levitt), a plain-clothes N.O.P.D detective keen on bending the rules to level the playing field against the new wave of Power-enhanced criminals. Robin’s business is upended when ex-soldier Art (Foxx) kidnaps her in his mission to hunt down the figures responsible for the drug’s creation. Incidentally, they’re also holding his daughter Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) captive. What follows is a Taken-esque chain of events that sees the trio teaming up on a rescue mission, taking down some bad guys in the process.

If this plot summary sounds derivative – that’s because it is. It’s ironic how a movie about superhumans chooses to pull its punches, squandering an intriguing premise for a cookie-cutter story, repackaged with trendy “superpower” embellishments. A shame, since whiffs of a more thoughtful script are peppered throughout the film: there’s some allusion to the ramifications of persistent drug misuse when we meet Newt (Machine Gun Kelly), Robin’s Power-dealing cousin. Newt is scarred from head to toe due to repeated doses of Power which trigger his fire-manipulating abilities. Yet, the film makes no further comment about the dangers or consequences of abusing such a highly volatile narcotic, nor the relentless cycles of drug addiction.

“Project Power hesitates to let its actors truly shine, confining them within the walls of a simplistic and underwhelming story.”

Of course, Project Power could easily be forgiven for this oversight, had there been other thematic elements to drive the story. An early sequence sees Shaver popping a Power pill before apprehending a Power-enhanced bank robber, hinting at the moral ambiguities of an N.O.P.D detective breaking the law in pursuit of justice. Halfway into the second act, Art discovers that the Power epidemic in New Orleans is simply part of an elaborate scheme to “fine-tune” the untested drug on a large minority populace. “The system is designed to swallow you whole,” laments Art, weary of his country’s systemic imbalances. Project Power certainly succeeds at teasing various thematic dilemmas linked to its power-inducing pill. Yet, it shies away from the opportunity to engage with any of them meaningfully, favouring the cheap thrills of a kidnapped-daughter story instead.


That’s not to say that this creative direction is fatal to the overall production, however. Where Project Power’s substance falls short, it makes up for in style. Muted character moments transition to high-octane action sequences seamlessly, while evenly distributed story beats sustain the film’s exciting pacing throughout its 114-minute runtime. Despite its predictable plot, the film never feels too dull or protracted.


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Where the film really excels in is its visual department, in particular through its depiction of superpowers. With each power hidden behind the lottery of the pill, there’s a constant eager anticipation for what might come next. When they do take centre stage, the result is visceral and immensely gratifying. Through a litany of graphic scenes, Project Power cleverly reinforces the notion that in this world, with great power comes an even greater price. Gone are spandex-clad heroes swinging through cityscapes with ease. Here, pharmaceutically induced superpowers take massive, physical tolls on its users, and the film is consistently unapologetic in reminding us so.


Beyond the visual spectacle, it is the grounded performances that save Project Power from complete mediocrity. Foxx’s and Fishback’s on-screen chemistry is commendable, breathing life into a father-daughter relationship that sparks between their two characters. In similar fashion, Gordon-Levitt’s steadfast demeanour complements Fishback’s brash and energetic personality, reinforcing the mischievous yet intimate sibling dynamic that we chance upon in the film’s opening moments. Pity then, that Project Power hesitates to let its actors truly shine, confining them within the walls of a simplistic and underwhelming story.

By no means is Project Power a misfire. On the contrary, there’s plenty to savour here for an 85-million-dollar action flick. But in the end, Project Power is a textbook example of a missed opportunity. It’s a film that took the easy way out: assembling a passable product from familiar pieces, rather than stretching its novel ideas to their fullest potential. The end result is a movie that feels less of a subversive superhero film, and more of a polished proof of concept. How unfortunate, because it’s one which I would’ve loved to see fully realised.

Project Power is out now on Netflix.