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 4K Ultra HD with a middling transfer that only enjoys slight improvement from Dolby Vision HDR. The Atmos mix is loud and dominating but lacks nuance. 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 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 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
Higher Power arrives on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray courtesy of Magnolia Pictures in a two-disc 4K UHD Blu-ray + Blu-ray set. Pressed onto a BD-66 disc, the discs are housed in a standard sturdy two-disc case with identical slipcover artwork. The disc loads to trailers for other Magnolia Pictures and Magnet releases (in 1080p) before arriving at an animated main menu with traditional navigation options.
Given the intense post-production processing and the very limited native resolution of the cameras used, I'm honestly a little surprised that Higher Power was given a 4K UHD release at all. If you read through all of the issues I mentioned in the Blu-ray review, the same thing applies here. Nary a shot doesn't feature some sort of digital color manipulation or is crushed by excessive CGI trickery. If anything the added resolution of this 2160p 2.39:1 transfer with Dolby Vision HDR just highlights all of the tricks and makes them even more obvious. In the plus column, the slightly improved black levels do afford a little better sense of depth, but shadow grading is still pretty limited so there really isn't a whole lot of improvement. Colors, flesh tones, and primaries are nearly indistinguishable from the SDR Blu-ray much of the time. Where things perk up is towards the last act of the film when Joe goes full Dr. Manhattan. His electro-man blue energy gets a little extra primary brilliance and the final shots do give a lively color pallet to appreciate but you're literally talking about the last few minutes of a 93-minute film. Dollars to donuts, yeah, there is an improvement with the 4K UHD Dolby Vision presentation, but it's marginal at best.
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 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a transfer that is only a modest if the nearly imperceptible improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart with the same loud and dominating Atmos mix that lacks genuine nuance. This one isn't going to win many folks over, it's probably best you Skip It altogether.