Netflix’s new film “Project Power,” directed by “Paranormal Activity” alumni Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, is reminiscent of its creators’ previous works. It’s a genre film that decidedly attempts to add depth to established tropes and conventions, but like the long-running horror franchise, the movie’s ultimate failure to achieve nuance is its most defining feature.
The story initially follows Robin (Dominique Fishback), a high school “power” dealer who is thrust deep into the conspiracy surrounding the new, unregulated drug. She finds a reluctant companion in Art (Jamie Foxx), a mysterious vigilante seeking to take down those behind the dangerous operation.
At the height of “Project Power,” the primary antagonist, Gardner (Amy Landecker), delivers a clandestine monologue that is painfully by the numbers, save for a single throwaway line. In essence, her plan is to test a pill, which gives its consumer unique, unpredictable power, on the New Orleans lower class. She compares this plan to what happened to Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient whose cell samples were taken without her consent in the 1950s. It’s certainly an interesting thematic analogy, but “Project Power” is fine with confining the acknowledgement of medical racism to this one-off line.
This waste of potentially interesting material is a pattern throughout the film. Between its flashy, technicolor visual sequences and admittedly excellent fight choreography, “Project Power” nods to more compelling thematic material — but, the film is content doing very little with it. Criticizing the movie for a lack of thematic depth may seem misguided, but it feels as though the film tries to veer in the direction of profound, ultimately lacking the confidence to do so. This results in a superficially entertaining, often corny and lackluster rehash of superhero tropes and genre conventions.
One of the film’s most glaring issues is how it fails to characterize its leads. Frank Shaver (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a New Orleans police officer investigating the abuse of the drug within his department, is a prime example. From his character’s first moments on screen, Gordon-Levitt seems as if he is doing his best Clint Eastwood impression, a point humorously acknowledged by other characters in the film’s opening.
But when “Dirty Harry” emulation is roughly the extent of Shaver’s characterization for the rest of the film, it turns this self-aware bit into a strangely noncommittal shortcut to personality. Though Gordon-Levitt delivers a charismatic performance, the puzzlingly shallow script does him few favors.
Similarly confusing is the bond between the other two main characters. While Art grows attached to Robin due to the similarities between her and his missing daughter, “Project Power” gives Robin little reason to reciprocate the bond. This leads to a few genuinely surreal moments in the film’s second act, in which Robin inexplicably begins to empathize with Art, who is, for all intents and purposes, her violent kidnapper. More often than not, the two seem to cooperate simply out of plot necessity, only shining a spotlight on how little purpose the film gives Robin beyond the first act.
This worldbuilding is at times compelling, but otherwise inconsistent and frustrating. Though the film attempts to explain how its titular pill works, asserting that it activates animal DNA in the user, this only raises more questions regarding the drug’s more out-there abilities: It’s hard to conceive how animal DNA would allow a human to grow three times their height at will, or gain the evolutionary benefit of spontaneous combustion.
The lack of self-awareness obvious in these inconsistencies leads to some of the film’s most unintentionally hilarious sequences. Art, for instance, tries to introduce his incredible, time-bending superpowers by likening himself to a shrimp, uncannily maintaining his signature tough guy demeanor. Other powers and their animal inspirations go strangely underutilized, or appear from seemingly nowhere in disorienting yet amusing non sequiturs.
Despite its efforts, “Project Power” never quite escapes these narrative flaws. Its visual candy and action sequences are certainly on par with the genre and adequately entertaining as a background watch, but the film rarely invites greater investment. The result is yet another perfectly passable but forgettable superhero film, sure to be relatively engaging in the moment, but leaving audiences with little reason to return.