Socrates once said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." However, young people growing up today with high-quality cameras and social media platforms in their pockets have taken this to a level that Socrates couldn't have imagined. Combine this with the popularity and pervasiveness of reality TV stars who are celebrated for merely existing, and it seems that the sentiment now is "The undocumented life didn't happen."
The new film Chronicle opens with a teenager named Andrew (Dane DeHaan), deciding to use a new video camera to record the events of his life as he shuttles between a home life with an alcoholic dad and a sick mom to a high school where he has no friends and bullies wait to torment him. Creative but shy, Andrew seems to feel what many lonely teenagers feel -- that if no one will examine their lives, they'll simply examine it themselves to provide proof that they existed.
But what makes Chronicle a satisfying piece of overachieving, teen angst-y entertainment is that what Andrew captures is himself, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and a popular student named Steve (Michael B. Jordan) as they experiment with and develop telekinetic powers (including the ability to fly) they obtain after an encounter with a mysterious object. Watch the trailer for Chronicle below.
While this sounds like it could be a superhero origin story (and a pretty promising one), the boys feel no obligation to use their powers for good, nor is there a villain to confront. Filmed and edited in the "found footage" style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, Chronicle follows the boys as they play with and explore their new abilities like the teenagers they are, using them to pull pranks that evoke the style and spirit of MTV's "Jackass" show, which taught the YouTube generation the entertainment value of self-harm and crudely executed stunts. For Andrew, his powers give him a chance at the spotlight of popularity.
But instead of then being filled with a sense of civic responsibility, picking out a costume, and becoming a superhero, we watch as Andrew retreats from Matt and Steve as his powers are unable to prevent his problems at school and home from worsening, with Andrew's camera -- an extension of himself, his feelings of self importance, and his desire to be appreciated -- as his only friend. As Andrew's alienation and resentment intensify, his recordings take on the eerie echoes of the journals and videos left behind by school shooters, which I imagine is not a coincidence.
At one point, Andrew describes his belief that his new powers have made him an "apex predator," the term used for animals at the very top of the food chain. This is possibly a reference to the now discredited "superpredator" theory, a fearmongering concept born in the mid '90s that claimed that bad conditions in minority communities were creating a new breed of "radically impulsive, brutally remorseless youngsters" known as superpredators. This theory was sometimes cited as a reason to sentence juveniles as adults, as well as draconian legislation that focused on punishment over prevention. While the superpredator theory was eventually debunked and even disavowed by one of its main authors, it's sometimes still used to explain the mindset of school shooters like those who committed the Columbine massacre, instead of focusing on preventable, less sensational factors that can lead to violent outbursts like bullying, overmedication, and lack of support systems.
In that sense, along with impressive special effects, Chronicle succeeds in keeping its story firmly planted in the real world despite its science-fiction premise. It's likely that not all outcasts would use newfound abilities to defend the weak, save the planet, and become a hero. Instead, many would probably use their superpowers to simply try to be happy, well-liked, and maybe settle a few scores -- not realizing that the scars of adolescence can be a daunting arch nemesis, even if you can fly.