If you read my blog regularly you know I’m a big fan of comic book and superhero movies even if they’re original titles. So naturally when Netflix released a new feature about super powered people trying to pull off heists it was right in my wheelhouse. Several weeks ago I took a chance on a popular title on the streaming service called “Code 8” which was adapted from a 2016 short film and starred Robbie Amell alongside his much more well-known cousin Stephen Amell as powered individuals in a world where powers have been outlawed. An intriguing concept, even if it’s not much of anything new for science fiction. At the time I was unaware the movie was a new release, having premiered in Canada in 2019, but it is, indeed, a new April release to the masses specifically from Netflix and since the disparity between popular opinion and my own critique is so wide I felt compelled to finally review it and voice my grievances. “Code 8” might have many of the critics won over, but for me it’s an underwhelming missed opportunity.
“Code 8” presents us with a world where people born with superhuman abilities, nicknamed Powers, are required by law to register. Also, a drug called Psyche is produced from their spinal fluid. The combination of fear over both their abilities and the drug causes Powers to fall victim to public prejudice while a robotic police force is created to hunt down those unregistered and using powers illegally. At the center of the story is Connor Reed, played by Robbie Amell, who has the power to project and control electricity. Reed eventually decides to team with a telekinetic Power named Garrett, played by Stephen Amell, and they use their powers to pull off heists with Robbie seeking to pay for cancer medication for his powered mother. This whole plot, from the outlawed superhumans to Robbie’s motivations for turning to crime, right away warns viewers of the lack of imagination this film possesses. Much of “Code 8’s” story elements and character motivations are borrowed from much better genre films before it, whether it’s superhero movies or heist films, and while there are glimmers of originality “Code 8” is all too comfortable leaning on what worked versus exploring any of the unique elements hidden underneath its flashy exterior.
It certainly doesn’t help that the performances aren’t very engaging either. The Amells aren’t horrible actors and they have their moments here, but this is definitely not their best work. What’s strange is they often veer from either being too over the top to barely seeming to care at all. One moment they’re too invested and overplay their emotions, the next it’s impossible to care about or relate to them because they’re downplaying things so much. The secondary characters and actors are no better. Sung Kang of “Fast & Furious” fame (pictured above) plays a cop named Park who tries to work with Connor to hunt down Connor and Garrett’s boss, but while the film eventually provides us with an interesting plot twist to explain his motivations Kang ultimately feels wooden and even more uninvested in the outcome even though he probably has the most to lose if Connor and Garrett aren’t stopped. By halfway through the film I realized from the acting alone that this film wasn’t going to be as fun as it promised. There’s no real complexity to the characters and very little convincing relatability and maybe part of that is because of the over-saturation of superhero films on the market, but that never stopped other movies like “Split”, “Glass”, or “The Incredibles”, all lacking comic source material, from giving us compelling and memorable characters and plotlines so why is “Code 8” so lacking?
Honestly, I think it’s because this probably wasn’t meant to be a movie. The way this film was approached from its tone to its scattered story elements and even the overall concept all feel like they were better built for a long-form television series. It kind of reminded me of how “The Dark Tower” went wrong as that movie was supposedly designed to be a springboard for a larger TV spinoff. It makes more sense when doing the research that “Code 8”, which I’ll remind you originated as a short film, is supposedly being further adapted into a short-form series for Quibi and that’s kind of where this material feels like it belongs. “Code 8” as a movie promises some challenging themes and ideas from the Powers being a source of drugs to the debate of ethics over whether an accident of birth is something that should be government controlled and the prejudices that come with it. While these are conflicts that have permeated the superhero genre for years , “Code 8” in its first few minutes promises a much deeper and unique examination of these themes than it delivers. Instead of challenging human prejudice or the “accident of birth” concept it goes for a heist movie concept and even does very little with that. It ignores everything that could have made it great in favor of what actually makes it one of the more generic original superhero-esque movies around.
What’s strange to me is that critics really seem to like this film and I can’t quite understand why. Some have called its humorless and gritty approach a shift for the genre but films like “Dredd” did that way before and with much better results. Some called its humble and small scale more relatable, but “Glass” felt like a much smaller scale film with better characters and more interesting ideas. Some complimented the rich world it presents but the movie does very little with that world except establishing how and why it exists. A lot of the compliments seem to speak to the larger potential of the property beyond the film, and I can see where this idea could be built on for something greater. However we’re not talking about the property at large. We’re simply talking about this one standalone movie and when held on its own without the possibility for potential in the future “Code 8” is uninteresting, poorly handled and fails to properly define itself as anything close to a standout when compared to its contemporaries or predecessors.
“Code 8” as a larger property might have promise, but the movie helping kick it off does nothing with that potential. The world is interesting, but the film does little to develop it beyond exposition. The characters could have been interesting but they’re held back by a bland script and uneven performances as well as poorly realized or uninspired character arks. The themes are challenging but they take a backseat to the heist. There’s so much more this movie could have explored and so many places it could have gone to help define itself from the crowd and yet it does none of that. I’ll admit I’m interested in seeing where this property goes and I do believe a television show that allows more time for stories and the world to develop and breath would probably be a neat idea, but if we’re just talking about this movie in particular “Code 8” was an unfortunate disappointment that promises much more than it delivers.