The best thing about the new indie sci-fi film Enhanced is the way director and co-writer James Mark ultimately explains how its world works. He doesn’t really have to do that. Enhanced is about as straightforward as movies get: It’s a no-budget action film where a girl with powers is hunted by a private military dedicated to capturing her kind, while she tries to stay one step ahead of a similarly powered killer who’s targeting super-people. The story starts with everyone becoming aware of each other, and ends when someone finally wins a fight: Enhanced is not really a movie with “lore,” but we can call it that, and pretend it’s more fun than it is. Because when it finally explains why things are happening, I immediately sat up straighter and wanted to know more. Unfortunately, Mark doesn’t really engage with the movie’s only fun idea.
To best appreciate this zany bit of backstory, we should probably get into the, uh, front-story. Like a lot of Enhanced, it isn’t terribly thrilling: George Shepard (George Tchortov) is a sergeant in a private military organization with a specific mission: to find and apprehend “enhanced” individuals. It’s nasty work — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear, enhanced people aren’t treated like people. The soldiers call them “things,” refer to them by serial numbers, and mostly respect them as weapons. But George begins to doubt his mission when he meets Anna (Alanna Bale), a young enhanced woman who works in a garage and lives out of a van.
Anna is unusually powerful, even for enhanced people. She’s also being hunted by David (the director’s brother, Chris Mark), an enhanced serial killer who targets other enhanced people, becoming stronger with each kill. On paper, this is all pretty fun stuff: a little bit of Heroes, perhaps a dash of X-Men, even some Nomadland in there. Watching it, however, isn’t much fun at all, even though it’s clear that the director is mostly interested in attempting to stage a legibly shot, cleanly choreographed action movie.
It’s a pity then, that Enhanced is home to such extremely weightless, awkward fights. The combatants keep trying out interesting holds and reversals that never really pan out. Ever have someone else record you as you do something physical — perhaps making up your own dance routine to “No Scrubs,” or doing all the moves from a Power Rangers episode — and then watch the playback and realize you don’t look as cool as you thought? The fights in Enhanced are kind of like that. Mark’s staunch refusal to chop up his action scenes like so many other American action movies is admirable, and his cast is game enough, but the magic just isn’t there, in spite of the science fiction and superhero elements jazzing up the action a little bit.
It’s impossible to get over how hilariously convoluted those science fiction elements are. [Spoilers ahead.] Late in Enhanced’s second act, Anna and George find out the truth about the secret experiments that led to the creation of enhanced people. Their powers don’t come from simple genetic experiments, or technological augmentation. They aren’t born with it, and it isn’t Maybelline. No, they exist because scientists discovered another dimension of pure energy where “entropy doesn’t exist,” and found a way to teleport things back and forth from that dimension. Which suggests that enhanced people don’t actually have superpowers, but are in fact human-shaped doors to another reality where they just threw out the laws of thermodynamics.
I want to be very clear: I love this. It’s the kind of bonkers stuff you’d see in an X-Men comic, where someone just casually tosses out the idea that Nightcrawler doesn’t actually teleport, he opens portals through hell. Or that Cyclops’ optic blasts are possible because his eyes are portals to another dimension. Unfortunately, Enhanced does not love this idea enough to elaborate on it or use it in further interesting ways, and after that reveal, it quickly returns to being an underwhelming action movie.
There’s a weird feeling that comes with watching something that would probably be better if it was worse. Enhanced is competent enough to be a decent TV pilot for a series that critics wouldn’t necessarily recommend, but would check in on from time to time to see how it’s faring. The characters in Enhanced aren’t really characters, and its world is paper-thin, but with 13 to 20 episodes to develop a cast and a world, a lot of disasters can be turned around. Enhanced is a movie, though, and even if it gets to make good on the cocky sequel setup it ends on, rewatching Heroes — which you shouldn’t do — would probably still be more fun.