Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Chronicle -- hurt people, apex predators and the Messiah

Director: Josh Trank, 2012 (PG-13)

Superhero movies have been overdone in recent years, with all the Avengers movies (Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, etc.), Batman (The Dark Knight) and the upcoming Superman. And the hand-held camera subgenre has also become a little stale, after The Blair Witch Project, the Paranormal Activity films, and Cloverfield (a preponderance of horror). But when first-time feature director Josh Trank combines the two in a mash-up of genres, he breathes new life into both in this “origins tale” of three teens. He even determines a plot device to stabilize the shaky-cam and put the anti-hero in the picture rather than being hidden behind the viewfinder.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a reclusive, somewhat troubled high school senior.  He has few friends, and only his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) hangs with him. It might have something to do with his aloof personality. Or it might be related to his ever-present video camera with which he is capturing his life story in a first-person chronicle (hence the movie title). Things change at a student rave to which they both go.

When Matt discovers a hole in the ground, his friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the popular student campaigning for class president, invites Andrew to come with them to explore. Descending into the ground while still capturing on tape, they find an unearthly object that somehow gives them strange powers accompanied by profuse nose bleeds. They have a form of telekinesis, which seems to get stronger as they exercise it, much like a physical muscle.

The first half of the film follows the three teens, who now have a secret bond. Their initial excitement and joy is captured well, especially as they discover they can somehow fly, despite the low-budget special effects. As teens, they realize they can use their newfound powers to pull pranks on their friends, even on strangers. And it is fun to watch them having fun, even if it is slightly at the expense of others. It is what immature teens do, after all.  And then the film gets darker.

Where Sam Raimi’s teenage hero Peter Parker learned the lesson, “With great power comes great responsibility." This is my gift, my curse. Who am I? I'm Spider-man”, Trank’s hero are much more irresponsible. Although Matt wants to set some rules on how they can use their powers, Andrew sees this as too constraining. So the film in effect asks how such super powers might test the integrity of more realistic teens, particularly one who is troubled. For Andrew, great power carries little responsibility. Instead, it carries with it the opportunity to make apparent amends for all the bullying and trials he has endured.

With a drunk and abusive father, and a mother lying in bed dying of cancer, Andrew has plenty of reason to feel hurt and angry. But now he has the ability to retaliate, and must face the choice of whether to. Indeed, he can choose to prove himself and become popular, even if it is temporary and marks him as somewhat of a freak.

In a wonderful line from another movie (the awful Greenberg, starring Ben Stiller), “hurt people hurt people.” And Andrew’s anger boils up inside until it overflows in acts of revenge. His hurt translates into hurting others. The bullied becomes the bully himself, a cycle that seems to perpetuate itself.

The Bible tells us, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Rom. 12:19). Peter goes so far as to say, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing” (1 Pet. 3:9). But a teen that has felt violence and insult for most of his life, this message is lost in the noise of his superpowers. Now he can be the evil one, even reveling in it, even if it seems to be for a good purpose.

Toward the end, as his rationalizing cements his philosophy, he tells Matt who he has become: “Apex predator”. He is the top of the pile, the supreme animal, the primo predator. In his eyes, killing a human has become to him like pulling the wings off a fly to a normal person: something insignificant and without feeling. As he reaches the top, his sense of ethics and morality have dissolved into a pragmatism of power. The unpopular misfit has become the powerful superman sans compassion or empathy.

It is quite a contrast with the supreme being, the powerful messiah Jesus Christ. It is said of Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8).
 He was at the apex, although not as a predator. All things were made through him (Jn. 1:3). Yet he did not take his position as God as an opportunity to flaunt his power over those far below him. Instead, he lowered himself to become one of those, one of us even. It is this fact, celebrated at Christmas in the birth of the God-man and honored at Easter when he died, was buried and rose again (1 Cor. 15:3-5) that is at the heart of Christianity. Through his death we are given life. Rather than take our life he offers true life. And in doing so, he is raising us up with him, to a position we could never dream of in this life. Will we accept his offer? Will we experience his power through the Holy Spirit?  If so, the chronicle of your life, shaky camera and all, will have a happier ending than this one.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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