On the streets of New Orleans, word begins to spread about a mysterious new pill that unlocks superpowers unique to each user.
Near the start of new Netflix Original Project Power there’s a montage of calls to the emergency services with stunned callers relating what they’ve just seen. It’s the modern version of five minutes of fame.
Imagine taking a pill and discovering you have a new superpower, but for five minutes only. You don’t know what you’re going to get, and there’s a chance you might instantly explode anyway. Would you take it?
The sensible ones in Project Power don’t: teenager Robin (Dominique Fishback), selling it to raise money for her mum’s operation, has seen what happens to people who overdose.
Project Power is less about cool, temporary superpowers and more about the power of privilege, how those at the top keep it for themselves anyway, and finding your own “super” powers inside you to resist that. Art (Jamie Foxx), tracking down his missing daughter Tracy, knows what’s up. The system is “designed to swallow you whole,” he tells Robin.
This is a standard thriller hiding underneath up-to-date trappings. It’s pacy and entertaining, made more interesting because of teenage heroine Robin: from her rapping to her ability to stitch a wound after breaking into the local vet’s for supplies. Still, it could really do with more cool, temporary superpowers.
There just aren’t enough to make this really pop, and some of the ones we do see bring with them a sense of deja vu (now that’s a superpower I would like). It’s not the writer’s fault The Old Guard popped up only a month ago with scenes of bullets merrily popping out of life-threatening wounds, but it does tarnish some of Project Power‘s sheen. And though middleman Biggie (Rodrigo Santoro), demonstrating the Power drug to a South American crime lady, jokes about Frozen when his girlfriend-test-subject turns out to be super-super-chill, her icy demise, while enjoyably snappy, is predictable.
Robin doesn’t need superpowers as she has her own powers bursting out of her – she’s smart, observant and self-reliant and as a young, poor, black woman she will need all these and more. Sometimes it takes someone to point them out to you though, and for that she has first Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and then Art. And it is pointed out, repeatedly.
Frank, a detective in the New Orleans Police Department, does take the pills, as a way of keeping up with the criminals. He has internal powers too: pickpocketing and an ability to channel Clint Eastwood.
He looks out for Robin, challenging some teens trying to mug her for the pills she sells: “So the question is, what’s your power? might be good, might be bad, nobody knows. Take it! I wanna see what happens!”
Then he takes a pill while on duty, during a chase after a camouflaging bank robber. They’re Cinderellas, time ticking away as the robber flees with his swag before his five minutes is up and he’s just another naked weirdo. (This, and Newt the self-immolating man, are the most spectacular superpowers.)
Frank’s boss, police captain Craine (Courtney B Vance), has to suspend him, though he also points Frank in the direction of Art as the man behind it all.
Art is soon onto Robin, and he’s happy to terrify her into submission to find his daughter. The three of them are soon thick as thieves though, plotting to track down Tracy.
Tracy (Kyanna Simone Simpson) can heal anything; there’s a sweet scene where she rests against a lab bench of plant specimens, only for a seedling to miraculously perk up. It’s like a Disney fairytale when a princess with a heart of gold walks by. Her power is inherited from her dad, himself the victim of horrific experimentation that has changed his DNA. Kidnapped by whoever is behind Project Power, she’s now kept prisoner, the living source of the new drug.
The names are cute: Newt (made up) and Robin (real). The powers are taken from nature; this is humanity improved and expanded. Lizards regrowing tails, sonic wave-producing pistol shrimps, a camouflaging octopus, the invisibility of women over 45 (just kidding). By the way, one of the meanings of Tracy is “more powerful”.
Biggie comes across as a middleman talking himself up though his name turns out to be more apt later. Behind him is Dr Gardner (Amy Landecker), a scientist who sees using New Orleans locals – criminals, the marginalised, the bored, the curious – as an acceptable cohort of unknowing lab rats. Hiding behind her salespeople, Gardner’s claims that she’s a new world pioneer are shaky at best. The movie, too, never really does more than glance at the questions it raises.
Her company, Teleios (meaning: perfection), which kidnaps and experiments on a young black woman, uses the real case of Henrietta Lacks, a young black woman, as its precedent. Lacks’s contribution to medicine, and the morality surrounding her lack of consent, have been discussed a lot in recent years and Gardner’s breezy statements are flimsy even in the world of movie villain justification.
The movie doesn’t examine anything beyond the here and now. In some ways that’s a strength; this is really focussed on Art’s search for his daughter, but with so many allegories and obvious questions it feels overstuffed with shadowy what-ifs.
Ultimately Project Power is an entertaining take on a well-worn thriller genre, boosted by its cast. Foxx is impressive as the careworn ex-Army man whose single-minded focus on finding his daughter gradually softens to include Robin and Frank, beyond simply the help they can give him.
There are some visually arresting scenes: camouflage man, taking on the colours and textures of whatever he runs past; immolation man Newt; lorries moving the first shipments from the dock into the city at night, travelling New Orlean’s brightly lit freeway arteries into the heart of their test subject; Frozen lady, unable to escape what is basically a giant test-tube as the drug ravages her body.
Fishback is fabulous. Robin is determined and focused but though she comes across as confident and self-reliant, she’s still looking for a father figure to share the load. When Art and Tracy are reunited, helped by Robin, for a second you see her on the outside again. It’s a moving performance.
It all gets a bit samey at the end, the repetitiveness of the way power and privilege are maintained seeping into the storytelling. I liked that its ending is, in one way, left open though. That’s real life. Other scenes are illogical: how does one character survive a massive explosion untouched, when all the guards are killed? Now that is a superpower.
Read my very spoilery article Today’s project: Power about the questions the film raises (and how it ends…)
Project Power is available on Netflix now
Watch the trailer: