Recently I took some time out from my life-and-death struggle with Princess of Shadows to watch the movie Chronicle. I have a specific reason for doing so, which I will share after I talk about the film.
If you don’t want to know what happens in the movie, STOP READING. You have been warned.
Brief synopsis (did I mention there would be spoilers?)– three high-schoolers– a popular kid, a class-president type, and the local geek punching-bag with the obligatory dying mother and abusive father– discover a mysterious crystalline object in a sinkhole/cavern outside Seattle (mostly Cape Town, South Africa, in actuality. Probably too expensive to shoot in Seattle. Believe me, I understand that part). In some unexplained fashion contact with the object imparts telekinetic super-powers to the trio, who spend the next several weeks exercising their newfound abilities and growing more and more powerful. They eventually learn to fly and crush objects like cars.
The punching-bag (Andrew) obsessively videos everything, which is the main excuse for presenting the movie as “found footage”. I’m ambivalent about the found footage form– it always seems at least a little contrived (in Cloverfield, is the goofy camera-gumbah really going to lug the camera around right up to the moment he’s (spoiler!) eaten by the monster? Come on). Inevitably, Andrew, his mother in her last days, his father a complete thug, and high-school still a living hell, begins to go off the rails and use his powers in Ways That Can Only End In Tears– he accidentally kills the token black kid in the trio (Steve), pays back some of the school bullies, and then tries to steal enough money to buy his mother medicine. This attempt fails and puts him in the hospital. Despite his wounds, he’s still able to blow out the exterior wall of his hospital room and nearly kill his abusive father. This sets up the climatic battle between Andrew and his cousin Matt, the third member of the trio, which lays waste to a significant portion of downtown (faux-)Seattle, before Matt kills Andrew to save innocent lives. Matt then goes off to (really?) Tibet to find harmony with his powers (or something).
It was hard for me to watch this film, for several reasons. One is the fact that the three kids spend about the first third of the film being giggling dicks, as they explore their new powers. They never seem to question how they got them (indeed, the movie never explains how, or what the crystalline object was), or if there’s a downside to the powers, until Andrew begins to hurt people. Another reason was that Andrew’s story had some painful parallels to my own time in high-school. The movie as a whole seemed to have serious plot-holes and I thought it short-changed Matt’s character development, as he becomes less of a dick and more concerned with other people. I suspect some footage was left on the cutting room floor that might round out that aspect of the film in a director’s cut. Either way, personally I would give the film an “okay, but I’m glad I didn’t pay full price” score.
The chief reason I watched the movie, though, was not fondness for the form or the genre (teenage superhero angst?). It’s because the film addresses something that has been percolating in the back of my brain for a while, trying to coalesce into a story.
How do people deal with power? Especially, how would a human being deal with the sudden acquisition of tremendous power? This is something of a recurring theme in sci-fi, from Star Trek (Charlie X, Where No Man Has Gone Before), the X-Men (the Dark Phoenix storyline), and Stephen King’s Carrie. Obviously this is a way of talking about power and the corruption of power in the real, everyday world, a topic painfully acute nowadays, and thoroughly familiar to any student of history (what’s one of the prime prerequisites for a historian, imo? A strong stomach).
Different stories answer this question of power in different ways. Many take the position that, one way or another, love and connection to other people (or, more broadly, sentient beings), can inoculate the recipient of power from its misuse. Superman traditionally avoided using his powers for evil chiefly because he was grounded in the love of his adoptive parents, who give this alien the framework to be willing to serve and sacrifice for the people of Earth (and, yes, for Lois Lane, but then we all have mixed motives). Spiderman starts out possibly headed toward a amoral and uncaring future, but the shock of his Uncle Ben’s death brings him to his senses.
Chronicle seems to lean toward this concept– disaffected and outcast Andrew fails to maintain his humanity, while the more popular Matt stops being a prick and starts to exert himself on behalf of other people. Unfortunately Andrew’s character arc is perfectly predictable– the kid most likely to spiral in and crater does so. Matt emerges as the character most concerned with moral imperatives, and part of his character growth appears to be linked to his reconnection to a girlfriend. This disappointed me; I would have liked the story better if the kid I was rooting for the most had overcome his demons.
I suspect that this will be my approach to this question– call it “the Dark Phoenix Problem”– if I ever write a story around it. So far, it’s very vague, but that’s how most of my stories start. There’s three or four people involved, male and female, and one of them is the social outcast/nerd. There’s also a kid sister involved somehow. I think I will find it far more interesting to see how the nerd (the person I would most identify with) overcomes the temptation to power, or to its misuse. To me this would provide a much more satisfying twist, especially if the other people imbued with power were the sort of people (a youth minister? hmmm) you’d expect to use the power for good, and fail.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a really good starting place yet for the tale, and my creative pipeline is currently clogged with other projects. Maybe, someday, I’ll find the time to write it. In the meantime, I might study other tales on this theme– for example, Carrie, which obviously takes a different view of this question entirely. But only when I’m ready to lose a few nights sleep….
Okay, back to Shadows. Later.