Director: Matthew Charles Santoro
Cast: Jordan Hinson, Jade Tailor, Ron Eldard, Colm Feore
RunTime: 1 hr 33 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 17 May 2018
Synopsis: From the producer of Transformers and the visual effects artist of 300, Fantastic Four and X-Men Origins comes HIGHER POWER… When the Universe decides what it wants, it's pointless to resist. With his family's life at stake, Joseph Steadman (Ron Eldard) finds himself the unwilling test subject of a maniacal scientist in a battle that could save the world, or destroy it.
Contrary to what its title may suggest, ‘Higher Power’ isn’t a faith-based movie; rather, it is a superhero movie made on a shoestring budget by a visual effects artist who has previously worked on the likes of ‘300’, ‘X-Men: The Last Stand’ and ‘Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer’. It’s important to bear in mind just what co-writer and director Matthew Charles Santoro had not been afforded with, in order to appreciate just why this shouldn’t even ever be compared against the likes of ‘Justice League’ and/or any one of the ‘Avengers’ movies; rather, this origin story belongs in the league of ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Chronicle’, both of which tried their utmost to turn what they had into what they could put onscreen.
Oh yes, ‘Higher Power’ is essentially about how middle-aged security guard Joe Steadman (Ron Eldard) transforms into a god-like figure (hence the title) with electromagnetic powers. Joe acquires his powers through a disgraced scientist (Colm Feore) whose experiment was deemed too risky by the very corporation he worked for, and who decides thereafter to pursue it on his own, in no small part due to a mysterious voice portending some cosmic disaster to befall Earth. That setup is a little clumsy, but what’s important to bear in mind is that a deadly burst of gamma radiation is hurtling across the cosmos towards us – and that few people know about it, save for the aforementioned scientist and Joe’s eldest daughter’s boyfriend (Austin Stowell) who has somehow written a book about it.
As befitting such archetypes, Joe is dealing with some personal demons: still struggling to recover from a history of substance abuse following the death of his wife, Joe is estranged from both his daughters Zoe (Jordan Hinson) and Rhea (Marielle Jaffe), the latter of whom has also unfortunately been using narcotics. You’ll have to accept that somehow Joe has been identified by the system on the basis of his DNA and personality as the perfect candidate to be blessed with such extraordinary powers, which leads him to be kidnapped and put through the necessary beats in order to emerge stronger and more powerful. Besides some initial trials in order to gain access to the machine that will convert him, Joe will also be subject to some deep personal agony so that he may find the right motivation to unleash his powers.
Like we said, Santoro wasn’t given much to execute his high-concept film, which is why you’ll have to wait till the final act to see just how formidable Joe becomes. And indeed, for a budget of less than US$1 million, it is pretty impressive that Santoro manages to stage a continuous sequence which sees Joe racing at the speed of light through buildings to stop an impending explosion at a shipyard and at the end of it all save a plane from crashing and burning onto a city. It’s no secret that quality visual effects are notoriously expensive, and the fact that Santoro has pulled that sequence off for so little is an achievement in and of itself. That and the rest of the CGI-heavy shots in the last half-hour is enough to excuse the somewhat cut-rate first hour which plays almost like a first-person shooter video game.
Though ostensibly to convey the constant surveillance that Joe is unknowingly under and his subsequent disorientation following the experimental treatment, the extensive use of security camera footage captured on drones as well as Joe’s optical implant is ingratiating to say the least, especially because the latter bears the same nauseating effect as first-person POV movies. Coupled with the equally pervasive use of computer interfaces, loading screens and HUDs as well as the washed-out colour palette, it is somewhat inevitable that ‘Higher Power’ comes off a little disorientating and even alienating. And that is a pity, because Stein does try to sell Joe’s story with pathos, painting him as an anti-hero at first whose flaws and shortcomings are real and palpable; alas, the movie’s cyberpunk sensibilities leave him coming off less empathetic than pathetic.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine why superhero fans should bother with a title like ‘Higher Power’, especially when you could choose between any number of Marvel titles in the cinema and/or on home video. Like we said, Santoro deserves credit for what he had managed to accomplish with so little, but that in itself is not reason enough for us to recommend that you give this low-budget superhero title a go. It doesn’t help that the movie takes itself too seriously, so much so that it drains what fun and/or thrill one might get out of watching someone human turn superhuman. Were it better plotted, better developed and better choreographed, ‘Higher Power’ might have been something better; as it is, it looks like one of those cut-rate B-grade movies from two decades ago, and no, that isn’t a compliment.
(Unless you're determined to find out what sort of superhero movie one can make on a budget of US$500,000, you should leave this '90s-styled cyberpunk thriller alone)
Review by Gabriel Chong