With the glut of prequels and sequels hitting the theaters these days, it’s always refreshing to find a few originals that become successful at the box office for their creativity and storytelling. I found that to be the case with March’s Chronicle, now out on DVD, which blends the found footage style of The Blair Witch Project and the bleak comic book realism of M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. What sets Chronicle apart, though, is its surprisingly thoughtful premise, taking the question “what if teenagers had Jedi Force powers?” to a powerful and logical conclusion.
The film revolves around a high school outcast who, with his too-cool cousin and the senior class president, finds himself gifted with telekinesis. This trio understandably uses their “powers” for high-school shenanigans, moving cars in parking lots and levitating teddy bears to scare small children. But before long, annoying drivers are run off the road and bullies are having their teeth ripped out. The trio are forced to recognize that the great power/great responsibility bit isn’t always going to work. The problem of Chronicle is this: how can you wield such power with a sinful heart?
The answer comes in the form of protagonist Andrew’s descent into Magneto-esque levels of super-villainy. The trio had originally agreed on a set of rules for their newfound power– “Rule number one; no using it on living things. Rule number two; you can’t use it when you’re angry. That’s it! Rule number three; I don’t think we should be using it in public, or telling anybody about it. Okay?” — but it isn’t long before notions of evolutionary superiority and the will to power rear their ugly heads.
The (legal) schema of works righteousness saturates the movie: the law of coolness when Andrew tries to use his powers to become popular at the high school talent show, the law of acceptance in Andrew’s relationship to his alcoholic and abusive father. The moral law even comes into play at the end of the movie when Andrew’s cousin Matt tries to absolve the trio of their sins, defending his cousin as “a good person” but also confessing how his lack of love drove Andrew to the point of villainy. Nature and nurture are not held as competing sources of evil in Chronicle–they’re both held up as sources of evil, which occasionally align together in a perfect storm of a shamed, outcast, angsty teen with an abusive father, sick mother, and nothing to lose.
What makes Chronicle so special is that you don’t have to suspend your disbelief long to recognize that the movie’s premise is quite plausible: this is probably what would happen if three teenagers suddenly had the power of The Force. They’d use leafblowers on the cheerleader’s skirts, fly to Miami for Spring Break, or attack their neighborhood drug dealers. On the other hand, they’d also manhandle their alcoholic parents, rob gas stations, and act from a place of rebellion and anger. In other words, they would be just like you and me: simul justus et peccator, both saint and sinner. In this way, Chronicle turns the superhero genre upside down. Nobody in this movie is virtuous, and nobody in this movie is immune from suffering. The villains aren’t from another universe. It’s a movie rooted in the ambiguity and anxiety of everyday existence. As a result, it explores the proverbial “dark side of the force,” the anti-Captain America, and all the pain that comes from it.
Chronicle does give glimpses of the power of love in a broken world, and it’s heartwarming to see Andrew, Matt, and Steve briefly eschew the laws of high school popularity for one another. But it’s ultimately Andrew’s attempt to conform to the law’s standard of the popularity that leads to his undoing. High school is not a world of grace, but a world of Social Darwinism, and only by becoming an alpha predator can one survive. But even then survival is not guaranteed. Not even when the top dogs have telekinetic powers.
So fair warning: Chronicle is dark. And while the found-footage elements of the film are some of the most creative and unique in the genre, they’re not as wholly connected with the plot as they might have been. But the storytelling is provocative, the editing is clever, and it pulls few punches in its pained description of teenage life. The story ends without leaving the viewer fully satisfied, not-so-subtly opening the door to a sequel. But these are small gripes. Chronicle is a refreshing anomaly, an original story rooted in the very real reality that none are righteous, no, not one.