Out in space a dying star set to implode is about to create a ripple effect that will destroy our planet. Meanwhile on Earth, Joe Steadman (Ron Eldard), an embittered, self-destructive recovering drug-addict and alcoholic, struggles to reconnect with his estranged daughters after the death of his wife from cancer. Neither wants anything to do with him. Eldest daughter Zoe (Jordan Hinson) is studying to be a nurse and dating best-selling astrophysicist Michael (Austin Stowell) whilst trying desperately to locate younger sister Rhea (Marielle Jaffe) who has become a hovel-dwelling junkie prostitute. Things could not seem to get any worse for the Steadman family. Until Joe is brutally abducted and implanted with a device that enables a fanatical scientist (Colm Feore) to monitor and control his every move. Threatening to murder Zoe and Rhea, the mystery man spurs poor Joe to commit a series of escalating criminal acts that eventually lead to a secret facility. Where a machine transforms Joe into a godlike, angst-driven super-being that might just be the world's salvation.
A sporadically interesting, provocative take on the 'average Joe becomes superman' story, Higher Power is undone by a script whose ambition ideas are outweighed by a tragic level of incoherence. Its premise, halfway between Unbreakable (2000) and Hancock (2008), deals with a man caught at his lowest ebb unexpectedly endowed with ultimate power. However, after the first act dwells on a relatively grounded, if morose and soap operatic back-story (punctured with home video flashbacks to happier times), the mid-section takes a taut, suspenseful left turn into Upgrade (2018) territory. Poor Joe becomes a hapless human puppet for Colm Feore's grandstanding mad scientist who steers him to commit theft, assault, robbery and increasingly heinous albeit involuntary crimes. Why? Because the more angsty and angrier Joe gets, the more powerful he becomes. Powerful enough to face down the apocalypse.
Now and then the film cuts back to a cosmic threat slowly approaching Earth in a glacial, semi-detached manner surprisingly akin to Melancholia (2011). Another film that juxtaposes a world-threatening event with a depressed central character unexpectedly discovering paranormal abilities. Thematically Higher Power is the flip-side of Lars Von Trier's film. In this instance the protagonist's pain and suffering provides a catharsis able to save the universe. Eventually the third act centers on Joe's transformation into a Doctor Manhattan-like all-powerful glowing blue superhero. At first taking revenge on the pusher that hooked Rhea on drugs (who, in a ludicrous attempt at seeming edgy, is shown to inhabit a grungy S&M torture dungeon) before setting his sights on higher goals. After establishing Zoe and Rhea as important the plot increasingly marginalizes both for the sake of fast-moving but increasingly senseless destruction.
First-time writer-director Matthew Charles Santoro (whose background lies in special effects on such films as 300 (2006) and X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)) handles the spectacle proficiently (plane crash, train crash, multiple explosions) but it is at the expense of the human story. Frenetic editing allows viewers no sense of overall clarity. Nor closure to each individual step along Joe's winding path. And like The Matrix (1999), the film has an annoying habit of writing off multiple innocent casualties as "collateral damage." Riddled with clunky dialogue that is too on the nose, its pseudo-scientific reasoning and heavy-handed melodrama are too often comic book in the worst sense. Feore's overwrought performance (he does the same 'conducting an invisible orchestra' schtick he pulled in The Sum of All Fears (2002)) does the film no favours but Eldard's compelling, earnest, empathetic turn grounds things somewhat. To Santoro's credit Higher Power manages to pull off a solid twist towards a finale that similarly ties everything together with some heady ideas and striking imagery. It leaves the film inconsistent but laudable and occasionally impressive.