2020 Catch-Up: Reviews of PROJECT POWER and SPUTNIK

by Ken Bakely

Now circling back to two sci-fi movies released last month, here are capsule reviews of Project Power and Sputnik.

Project Power (dir. Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman)

For all that goes into Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s Project Power – like a large cast, high concept, vibrant aesthetic, and propulsive action sequences – it’s hard to extensively discuss much of anything that happens in the movie, and even harder to come away with any strong feelings about it at all. It’s a largely efficient film that doesn’t seem to be very interested in building its world after a point, instead content to just spin its wheels. While it’s quite well-made from a technical perspective, there’s not much to set it apart from the many other polished and flashy movies that fill up streaming service queues. Mattson Tomlin’s script concerns the rise of “Power,” a strange new drug that has appeared on the streets of New Orleans. It takes the form of a glowing yellow capsule, and has the ability to grant its users five minutes of superhuman abilities (though possible side effects include spontaneous combustion). Robin (Dominique Fishback), a high school student, has begun dealing Power to help make ends meet, and as she could help provide insight into the drug’s mysterious origins, she quickly enters the respective radars of local detective Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and military officer Art (Jamie Foxx), who are both seeking to stop the spread of Power as it wreaks havoc across the city.

The cast is solid; Fishback is particularly strong, providing many of the film’s rarest moments of genuine character depth and motivation. While Gordon-Levitt and Foxx are fine as the big-name headliners, they’re not given very much of interest to do. This speaks to the movie’s main problem: though there are certainly a number of fairly involved action setpieces, the movie just isn’t that memorable as a whole. Joost and Schulman bring the proceedings along at a fine clip, but don’t really draw their attention to anything in particular. The finale feels rushed and abrupt, leaving the movie feeling like it’s just stopped. Project Power glosses over the broadest possible incarnations of its plot. As a result even with the high stakes that the film presents – in the form of Power’s stunning potency, and the twists and turns that come as we learn more about where it came from – the script doesn’t successfully roll this into anything all that cohesive or compelling. The possibilities of a substance like this, which balances limitless ability with all the destruction that this implies, and the thorny backstory behind it should provide for more than enough propulsion to the story, but there’s not enough to tie the movie together. It balances out to be a merely competent action movie that winds up in a muddled center ground. Rating: two stars out of four.

Sputnik (dir. Egor Abramenko)

Every moment of Egor Abramenko’s Sputnik is enticingly off-putting. The film takes its time in crafting a sufficiently dour mood; amidst grey observation rooms and sealed-off government facilities, untold horrors await, ready to burst out at any moment. Set at a space research center in Russia in 1983, Tatyana (Oksana Akinshina), a doctor, is called in to evaluate a strange situation of significant consequence. Two cosmonauts reported an extraterrestrial encounter while in space, and crashed their vessel upon re-entry. One died and the other survived, but Konstantin (Pyotr Fyodorov), the survivor, could hardly be said to have returned alone. An aggressive, parasitic alien has made its way into his body, emerging only at night. Tatyana begins to investigate this creature, its relationship to its host body, and what all of this could possibly imply. But soon enough, unsettling facts begin emerging: not only about the alien, but about the people around her, particularly when it comes to the facility’s supervisor – the severe Colonel Semiradov (Fyodor Bondarchuk) – including the extent of what he already knows about this entire situation, and the true motivations and plans that drive his actions. From here, the fears of the alien’s hostile nature and the disturbing behaviors of the human characters converge.

It’s fascinating to watch this all unfold. Sputnik is further brought to life by a row of strong lead performances, particularly from Akinshina as Tatyana, who contrasts the character’s direct, straight-shooter personality against Bondarchuk’s wily Semiradov, and Fyodorov’s Konstantinin, whose understandably cagey demeanor from the start turns out to hold some unexpected personal secrets, as she – and we as viewers – get to know him. The film clearly takes pleasure in delivering each revelation, but the enjoyment that comes from all of this is less that these twists and turns are unexpected, rather than that they are performed and executed with a sharp style and precise tone. Maxim Zhukov’s cinematography is often dark but never flatly dim, per se; he takes care in shaping each space’s appearance, where both interiors and exteriors represent different sides of the film’s inky and menacing aesthetic. This all feeds into the movie’s overriding vision, in which its high-concept story and bursts of bloody chaos serves as an entry point into the narrative’s deeper commentaries, whether on the dangers of unchecked authority or the complex nature of how we relate to others. And even when Oleg Malovichko and Andrei Zolotarv’s script seems a little thin on developments, it draws its characters with a thoughtful complexity that keeps the story from ever feeling empty, and Abramenko’s note-perfect ability in constructing the movie’s environment keeps us interested throughout. Rating: three stars out of four.