Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, ‘Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves;…
So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another. 26Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, 27and do not make room for the devil.
Set in Seattle, this story of three teenagers who crawl down a mysterious hole and find themselves receiving unusual powers through contact with a mysterious glowing object is one of the best cautionary parables that I have seen in a long time. And the teens are entirely believable, at first using their new telekinetic powers for typical teenage pranks–blowing up the skirt of a cheerleader, lifting their Pringles from the can directly into their mouths, playing a prank on a woman shopper by transporting her car to a different parking space, and helping the least popular of the trio gain popularity at through a “magic act” at the school talent show.
Andrew (Dane De Haan) is the shy member of the group, often the brunt of taunts and bullying. It could be as a defensive measure that he starts taking a video camera everywhere, thus creating the bulk of the videos that make up this “found footage” film, as in The Blair Witch Project. Other footage comes from a camera that a girl uses, plus images from surveillance cameras and such (a clever way of including Andrew in the shots is when he uses his power to make the camcorder hover in the air a few feet from the three films while recording). Andrew’s mother is bedridden, and his father is an abusive alcoholic, often hitting his son out of anger and frustration.
The other members of the trio are Andrew’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), an African American extremely popular with their classmates. When Andrew becomes enraged by a tailgater blaring his horn because they are not driving fast, he uses his telekinetic powers to push the offending car off the road and into the river. The boys rescue the injured man from drowning, and afterwards Matt declares to them that there must be rules governing their use of their new-found powers. Never use them against a living being, and never use them in anger. Steve readily agrees, but Andrew does so reluctantly, forewarning the viewer of the darkness soon to follow.
The boys discover that the more they practice their power, the stronger it becomes–much like exercising that increases their muscle power and control. Then comes the day when they learn they can fly. This proves difficult at first for a couple of them, but soon they all are cavorting among the clouds. This sequence is especially effective at showing their teenage playful exuberance. If only it could last. But Andrew finds it increasingly difficult to contain his anger, especially at home where his mother is dying and his father is taking out his own anger on his son. The last portion of the film matches that of another film about a teenager using her powers to strike back at her oppressors, Carrie. Like all good cautionary films, there are unintended consequences that prove disastrous.
Director Joshus Trank and screenplay writer Max Landis’s film is an excellent one for a group of youth to watch and discuss. (However, it is rated PG-13, so parents should be forewarned before taking a youth group to see this!) The teens in the film are portrayed so realistically, exhibiting both the energy and excitement of teens discovering unexpected powers while reacting at times with a mixture of maturity and irresponsibility, the latter indicated by not thinking of the consequences of their acts. The plot will remind sci-fi and comic book fans will of films of the past few years dealing with the origins of super heroes, only this film is more realistic in that the three teenagers are more interested in playing pranks than in donning a mask and costume to pursue a noble cause on behalf of justice. The cautionary lesson taught in the dark last chapter of the story grows out of an understanding that not everyone who receives a great gift will exercise great responsibility.
1. What do you think of each of the three main characters? Who has the most going against him? Who exhibits the most responsibility”
2. What do you think of the advice of Uncle Ben in Spiderman, referred to in the last line above?
3. At what points does the film effectively show that these are typical teenagers? If you had discovered that you had such power at that age, how might you have used them? Or if you are a teenager, in what situations might you use it? Against someone? (A bullying or obnoxious classmate or teacher? How might you use it for, rather than against, someone or cause?)
4. Andrew clearly has anger problems: have you ever wanted to “get” an obnoxious driver while out on the road? Maybe one who recklessly cuts in? (I’ve often wished for a tire to go flat on such a person’s car, indicating that I’m more like Andrew than I like to think I am.)
5. What do you think the apostle Paul meant when he wrote “Be angry, but do not sin”? Is it anger, or the harm that we commit while angry that is sinful? Was Jesus ever angry? Check out anger or angry in a Bible concordance. Are their times when we ought to be angry? Check out the Hebrew prophets on this.
6. How might a more mature Andrew have dealt with his anger? How did his friends attempt to help him? What might they have done differently that would have led to a different outcome?
7. How is this film similar to other cautionary tales? What are some of them? (Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde; Frankenstein; The Invisible Man; The Fly; Fahrenheit 451; Flatliners; Jurassic Park; The Road; 1984. to name just a few. What are some others?)
8. What unintended consequences happen in the film? What unintended consequences have you experienced? How does this show our limitations? How did you cope with them?
9. How is the story of the tower of Babel a cautionary tale? What is it that the cautionary tale warns us against–human hubris, pride in our own power? The assumption that we can live without God? The refusal to admit that there are limits to our human power? How can caution also be used to impede progress (see the case of the introduction of anaesthesia in the 19th century, or the use of contraceptives today). How can a balance be struck? Note how this is important in the developing science and practice of genetics.