Higher Power proves budget no longer dictates a filmmaker's ability to fill the screen with expensive looking visual effects. However, you still need a compelling story. Visual effects veteran Matthew Charles Santoro makes his directorial debut with this intriguing but maddeningly messy and convoluted splash into superhero filmmaking. Some good ideas get lost and some great actors' best efforts can't ground the emotional core against the audio/visual bombardment. Magnolia brings Higher Power to Blu-ray with a severely post-production processed image with a decent Atmos mix. I didn't altogether hate this movie but I can't recommend it fully either -- so it's probably best you Skip It.
Independent filmmaking has made numerous technological leaps over the last decade. Everything from commercial grade camera and sound equipment to out-of-a-box post-production is now at any amateur filmmaker's fingertips. Visual effects veteran Matthew Charles Santoro makes his feature directorial debut with Higher Power -- a Superhero film made on a shoestring budget featuring all the splash and pizzaz of a major motion picture release. Not even with a great cast featuring Colm Feore and a great turn from Ron Eldard can salvage this messy film. There are moments where intriguing ideas percolate to the top and the film gains some narrative thrust, but more often than not things get lost in a constant barrage of convoluted visuals and maddeningly clunky exposition.
After the collapse of a distant star, Earth is in the direct path of a devastating Gamma Ray Blast. But a mysterious scientist (Colm Feore) has a plan to save the world. Using a down on his luck security officer named Joe (Ron Eldard) who matches the required DNA profile, the scientist has designs to create an electromagnetically charged super-being capable of saving the world - or even end it. Using Joe's estranged daughters Zoe (Jordan Hinson) and Rhea (Marielle Jaffe), the scientist aims to manipulate Joe's emotions to help him reach the full potential of his new powers.
Higher Power is simply one of those movies that means well but through poor execution doesn't come close to reaching its potential. The film's biggest issue is the constant and unnecessary CGI effects. 80-90% of them just aren't needed and end up being a distraction that kills any emotional connection to the characters. The first fifteen minutes is a barrage of visual information that makes no sense making these precious moments of setup and exposition nearly impossible to navigate. We barely have an understanding of Ron Eldard's Joe Steadman and his sad life that led to the death of his wife and estrangement of his daughters. Once Joe is roped into Colm Feore's unnamed scientist character's schemes and the film finally feels like there is some life in it, so much time has been lost that I dare say most folks would have long ago turned this thing off.
Higher Power feels as if it was conceived to prove the point that you don't need to have a big budget to get good visual effects. That's fine and good, but visual effects in of themselves need to have a point otherwise they're a waste of time and that precious budget. At its core, there is an interesting superhero-inspired story to Higher Power. The idea of a scientist creating effectively a Dr. Manhattan god-like being capable of humanity's salvation or destruction is actually kinda badass. How he manipulates Joe to that point from being suicidal and ready to throw in the towel to actually giving a damn is pretty good plot mechanics. However, everything is so messily assembled and put together with so much CGI artifice it's hard to know what's going on, who anybody is in relation to one another, and ultimately give a damn.
It's a frustrating experience to be sure. As a longtime comics fan, I recognized the intentions as a pseudo-superhero origin story. I dug the plot such as it was and I enjoyed Ron Eldard getting a lead spot - even though he's due for much better. But the fact that so much essential plot details and events in the film are drowned in nonsensical CGI gobbledygook, Higher Power misses its target by a wide angle. Once the movie got going it was pretty damn cool to see Joe become a super being capable of safely landing a crashing airplane and save a commuter train about to go off the tracks at the same time (take that Superman!), but so much of the film is wasted on needless and confusing flashy visual effects that what could have been a decent indy superhero movie is only mediocre at best.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Higher Power arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Pictures in a singled disc set. Pressed onto a Region A BD-25 disc, the disc is housed in a single-disc standard Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other Magnolia Pictures and Magnet releases before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
Processed. Re-processed. And then Processed again is perhaps the best way to set some baseline expectations for the 1080p 2.39:1 transfer. You would be hard pressed to find a single scene in this film that didn't feature intrusive CGI effects or hyper-distorted post-production color skewing. As such, the visual pallet of the film changes virtually from shot to shot without any consistency. This image is a product of intentional processing and to that end, I guess one has to more or less leave it as such. Detail clarity in facial features, scenery, and clothing are inconsistent from one moment to the next and seemingly without much in the way of motivation. Flashback to happier times for Joe appear best with "normal" colors and decent details, and I thought that was by design but even the flashbacks don't quite measure up. With all the applied distortion colors aren't very consistent until Joe goes full Dr. Manhattan when there is finally a sense of baseline blue primary saturation. Black levels are deep and inky but even then they can shift towards grey depending on whatever post-production trick is being implied. Depth also has a measure of presence but doesn't really ever come to life.
Higher Power comes with a Dolby Atmos (Dolby TrueHD 7.1 default) mix that is simply best described as very loud. Truth be told beyond basics of scoring, sound effects, and dialogue, there really isn't much intricacy to the sound design here. Dialogue is clean and clear and Colm Feore's shadowy figure gets a little extra dominance as he's supposed to be speaking to Joe through some sort of funky implant in his head - but there really isn't much to it. There isn't really any directionality or object-focused placement to speak of. It's just varying degrees of loud layered upon loud. If there was any sort of vertical activity I wouldn't be able to tell you as everything else was firing on all cylinders at the same time. That said, even through the cacophony there is at least enough layering and separation to the elements that the mix doesn't simply become one big noise blob blasting your sound system. Atmos is more or less a relative term here. Overall it's a fine mix but not one I'd pull for demo material.
Conceptually speaking, Higher Power could have been something cool. Even without a major budget, the idea for a solid independent superhero movie is there, but it is so clumsily executed that it's difficult to drum up excitement. The film's opening ten or fifteen minutes is excruciatingly rough going but if you can get past that to where the plot actually gets going, there's something to enjoy - even if it requires you to stretch your suspension of disbelief. I didn't hate it, and I only encourage folks to give it try as a curiosity. Magnolia Pictures releases Higher Power on Blu-ray with a hyper-processed looking transfer but the Atmos track is decent even if it lacks nuance. This one isn't going to win many folks over, it's probably best you Skip It altogether.