Did you ever see the movie, The Dark Knight? It was that most popular of Batman movies with the late Heath Ledger as the Joker, an Oscar-winning role that had him serving as a madcap lunatic clown. I think I've told maybe one or two people since seeing it but, watching it the first time disturbed me deeply. It wasn't that the movie was inherently scary; there aren't many moments that are horrifying or gross. But, on a conceptual level, it messed with my head.
The Dark Knight shows us a world based strongly on order. We have the police, the media, civilians... People living their lives. Gotham is based on every urban city we're familiar with. Things make sense and work based on a system of laws. Sure, you can break the law, but you can then predict that the police (or Batman himself) will try to catch you. Your rational actions have consequences that you can predict.
What disturbed me about The Dark Knight was watching that system fall apart and be made moot. It managed to powerfully convince me that, if someone were so inclined on a lunatic level, the system and society that we take for granted is absolutely meaningless. At the heart of it, people are going to look out for themselves and their closest friends and family before all. So, if everyone is pushed to the limit, then everyone is out for themselves. It's the law of the jungle. The crumbling of civilization. Can you imagine how hard it would be to operate in a world where, at any moment, somebody can kick down your door, cripple you, steal all of your valuables, and injure your partner in ways you don't want to think about?
I'm not sure if I've done a good job of explaining what affected me so powerfully when it came to watching The Dark Knight for the first time. But this is relevant because, as I watched Chronicle, I had a similar gut feeling of revulsion and fear. This made the movie quite powerful but, at the same time, it made it genuinely difficult for me to watch. I'm sure this feeling will disappear when/if I watch it a second time, like it did with The Dark Knight. But it is indicative of a really good movie when it manages to get under your skin like Chronicle did for me.
With Great Power...
Chronicle is the story of three high school boys who stumble upon a glowing artifact of unknown power and origin. They investigate, touch it, and laugh at it like high school boys are wont to do. It surges in power, their faces start bleeding, and they barely drag themselves out of there. When they come to, they swiftly realize that they've acquired the power of telekinesis, the ability to move things with their mind. The movie feels like a documentary of them learning how to use and abuse said power, and how it affects their lives in high school and at home. When looking at it from afar, the plot has every similarity with every superhero origin story that we've ever seen. What makes Chronicle unique, however, is that it is realistic.
Even though we like to think differently and even though our favorite stories may state otherwise, the truth of humanity is that, given power, we don't always use it well. We like to think that, when given the opportunity, we would use superpowers much like Spider-man would. Spider-man's motto is that, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Part of growing up is taking characters like that and aspiring to them, but realizing that the world isn't quite as black and white as they make it sound. Everyone, no matter how much awfulness they bring into the world, believes that they are doing good. We all think we are the heroes of our own story and so we rationalize however we may that we are worthy individuals. It takes a lot to tell yourself that your path is wrong, and not everyone is capable of changing, even when what they do can hurt others, physically or emotionally.
Chronicle thus looks at how the average high school guys would do if they actually received such powers. No, they don't throw on capes and start fighting crime. Instead, they dick around with it. They play pranks on each other. They revel in the fun of it and, inevitably, they slip and mess up. They're high school kids and, to them, this is just another plaything. They are young, the world is their oyster, and they think they're invincible.
There's the antisocial nerd who hasn't yet figured out how to fit into the 'cool crowd'. There's the guy who cultivates a rebellious sort of personality to hide the fact that he doesn't really know how to talk to girls. And then there's the 'popular kid' who is in all of the clubs, running for school president, and yet hasn't been able to make any truly close friends. There are aspects of us in each of these characters, and the movie does an expert job in making each of these guys three-dimensional and relatable.
This combination of factors deeply unsettled me. I was a high school nut just like these kids and, for better or worse, I could see that this is exactly how I would have handled such a power back then. They don't really try to do bad things with it but, because they're so filled with youthful braggadocio and believe that they are completely in control, you wait for and feel fear for every moment that they use their powers. You just know that things will go wrong at some point. You just aren't sure how. And when they do, there is nobody who can stop things from happening. Their parents are ineffectual. The police are completely powerless. It turns into a situation straight out of Irredeemable (only read if you don't mind spoilers being hinted at). And then you feel as helpless as everyone else.
Dear god. This is what it must feel like to have children. Chronicle is so effective at making you care for the characters that, when you watch them play with their power like it's nothing, at first, you laugh. Then you cringe. Then you start getting really worried about them. And then things start to go wrong. First, just a little mess up. And then things fail spectacularly.
This movie is filmed via the 'found footage' technique, where it is as if the camera is held by one of the characters. Usually this results in an annoying sort of 'shaky cam' but, when done well and when the shaking is minimalized (as it is here), it truly adds to the intimate and intense nature of it. And, because it is filmed this way, you just know that something bad or horrifying will occur at some point. This knowledge adds an additional sense of foreboding that sticks with you until that time where things do start going wrong.
But until then, this movie is a truly touching character exploration of three boys in high school who have problems and joys of their own. That's part of what makes the movie so damn effective. You get to know them, love each of them in turn, and then watch as their brotherhood gets ripped apart. I don't want to spoil things but another thing this movie did well is successfully fool me on which kid was going to 'go rogue'. You just know someone is going to do it for such is the nature of superhero movies, but it definitely wasn't who I expected it to be.
Altogether, Chronicle is well worth seeing and is probably the best superhero movie I've ever seen. I'm a sucker for the dark dramas and this one defies its own genre by treating something as childish as superpowers with an intensely realistic slant. But beware. This is not a happy movie and there are some genuinely disturbing moments in there. You'll connect with the characters and wish the best for them. And then you'll watch as their world is shattered before your eyes.