Chronicle gives the “realistic” superhero movie a +1 level up from Unbreakable, giving us a step closer to believing “what it would look like if superheroes existed in our world,” but it also a hybrid of a few other types of films. It takes the “found footage” concept film past what we were introduced to in The Blair Witch Project, and expanded to in Cloverfield (with a much steadier camera hand), and combines it with an autobiographical documentary like Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation.
Over 90% of the “footage” belongs to Andrew (Dane DeHaan, In Treatment) the high school social pariah who buys a high-end (and large) video camera to record his adolescent years, good experiences or bad. We’re not given a reason why he chooses to document his life in this manner. Maybe he hopes to capture the varied high school experience, or his own coming of age; what he gets is a transformation of another kind.
His cousin Matt (Alex Russell) is the only one friendly towards him, but begrudgingly, because they are related. Matt admits to Andrew that he does not do himself any favors with his shyness and sticking a camera in front of everyone further alienates him. The third musketeer is Steve (Michael B. Jordan, The Wire), a smooth-talking charismatic candidate for class president.
On one fateful night, these three high school boys, who would not ordinarily associate with each other, found themselves exploring a giant hole in the ground while attending a giant rave in the woods. For every practical reason they should have been scared away, they were drawn in that much stronger. When they came out, they each gained similar telekinetic powers. They could move objects with their mind, they could stop them in mid-flight. They could even fly. They bonded instantly over their amazing new abilities. All seemed right in the world. Remember, though, it’s all fun until someone gets hurt.
Chronicle is the brainchild of director-writer Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis and proves that it’s not how much you spend on making a film, but how you spend it. What I liked most about Chronicle was that despite this amazing discovery, there was never a point at which the leads ceased being teenagers or fell into typical superhero affairs. They didn’t create garish super uniforms, they didn’t dig out comic books to find inspiration or accept some greater responsibility to the human race and build a secret hangout. They used their powers, as I would expect teenagers to. They messed with people at Wal-Mart, they cleverly used their powers to gain more popularity at school to score girls, they made mistakes and they were reckless. They were the heroes… and the villains as well and we are quickly reminded that man is still his own worst enemy no matter how extraordinary he becomes.
The extent of danger in having telekinetic powers, like any weapon, is controlled by who wields them. We learn early on (mostly because of his cataloging) that Andrew is the only one out of the three that is stressed as much at home as he is in attending school. Perhaps that’s why Andrew is able to develop his powers so much sooner than the others. He has the most to gain as well as the most to lose. Chronicle would have you believe halfway through that it’s the making of a rags-to-riches story. It is anything but.
Chronicle’s riveting third act is one part Shakespearean tragedy and another part Toho Godzilla flick, turning the city of Seattle into a giant piñata. The tone crescendos from children playing with new toys and at which we begin to wonder where this is all headed, to a point of no return and thunderous tempest builds; the ending has an undeniable similar tune of supers gone awry like the timeless Anime classic Akira.
The action and flight scenes raise the ante for the Superman: Man of Steel film, which will most likely be made with a much, much larger budget. Will it have this kind of resonance? We’ll find out next year. Chronicle makes the most of smart filmmaking and extremely effective visual effects by Simon Hansen (second unit director on District 9); Trank will most certainly be a filmmaker to watch as he is currently being courted by Fox to direct the Fantastic Four reboot.
Not to be outdone, the relatively unknown cast rewards invested viewers who think beyond what the footage shows. They give the story something tangible while their naivety and the uncertainty of their actions is where Chronicle will catch you off-guard. It may even confront each viewer to pause and think, ‘Would I handle this situation the same way?’ and ‘What would super powers exploit about my life and my personality?’
While real documentaries can appear to be “truthful,” there is still an editor at the end of the day. Chronicle rectifies this problem by revealing different points of view–while still following the rules of found footage–and allowing those different angles such as security cameras, news footage, and by another hand-held camera of ultra-cute school blogger Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw) to show just how dark and destructive they truly were. The film does slip a few times and viewers can be taken out of the moment, ‘who’s camera are we seeing all three boys from?’
Viewers are invited to connect the dots–to draw their own conclusions of what happened off-camera, but as far as what was “caught” on film, Chronicle is a satisfying and surprising trip even at a briskly-paced 83-minute run time. Still, it’s hard not to feel origin stories are familiar ground and Chronicle may be categorized as a gimmicky film, but there is more to it that could lead to a second or third viewing because it’s so unconventional. Chronicle re-imagines the found footage concept and elevates it to a sensible storytelling method, but more importantly raises the expectations of where super-hero films go from here.