Look, up in the sky!
It’s a bird!
It’s a plane!
Ah, no. It’s just another disgruntled teenager with a video camera.
Chronicle is the latest in a wave of films to embrace the “found footage” conceit, beginning (sort of) in 1999 with The Blair Witch Project and notably including Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity (along with a slew of more forgettable films, primarily in the horror genre). Why? It’s art reflecting life, really. Cell phones and computers make recording ourselves easier than ever, and even if not many of us actually do so while, say, being chased out of our homes by ghosts, you could see the trend as a mirror to the way we post even the most mundane details of our lives on the internet for all to see. If a Godzilla-esque monster actually did attack a major city, you can bet it’d be all over YouTube.
(Also — if you’re making a low-budget movie, it’s a great way to explain away your poor production value.)
I loved the novel way Cloverfield kept us on the ground-level of a giant space-lizard attack, experiencing the fear right along with the victims instead of on a massive scale that makes it hard to even see the people, let alone care about them. It’s hard to muster up much sympathy for computer-generated faceless masses, but Cloverfield was strangely intimate for a story of that nature, allowing its everyday protagonists’ survival to be ours as well. It was a nifty sci-fi twist on 9/11-style terror.
After that, though, the device got stretched rather thin. Paranormal Activity was an okay way to bring the standard haunted house movie into the 21st century, but the copycats were a dime a dozen, forgetting that the whole point of the gimmick in the first place is to lend something new to a tired genre. Instead, they came off as cheap, lazy, and frustrating, with lame-brain marketing always capitalizing on the idea that the footage was “real.” Yeah, right.Mercifully, the advertisements for Chronicle did not try and emphasize that this footage had been miraculously recovered from an attack by a flying teenager we somehow must have just missed hearing about. In many ways, Chronicle gives its audience more credit than all those other found footage films of recent years. (I’d list them if I could remember them, but honestly… they’re just that forgettable.)
The protagonist is Andrew, quite capably played by Dane DeHaan, the sort of brooding, dark-humored teenager you’ve seen before (in movies, and probably in your own high school as well). Andrew decides to “film everything,” as he puts it — presumably, that’s the “chronicling” referenced in the film’s title. And by “everything,” he mostly means himself being beaten up by various assholes, since that happens no less than three times on the very first day of his chronicle. I’m not sure we really needed three separate tormenters — it’s a little heavy-handed, we get it, but alright.
Also, Andrew has quite impeccable timing in beginning this video chronicle, since it starts on the very same day his cousin and the class president discover a glowing whatzit buried in a mysterious cave outside a party. Cousin Matt (Alex Russell) and popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan) make a very “teenage boy” decision, which is to jump into the dark, foreboding cave and see what’s down there. Andrew and his camera follow, muttering stuff along the lines of “You guys, this is a really bad idea.” Understatement.
It’s unclear what exactly happens next, but in the following weeks, the boys discover they have what you might call “superpowers.” Telekinesis, to be more precise. They can float small objects using only their minds, and even though they often get horrible gushing nosebleeds while doing so, none of them seem particularly concerned about the possible ramifications to their health. None of them do the math about the potentially disastrous results of this ability. Clearly, none of these boys ever saw Carrie.
That’s one of several things Chronicle gets right. Unlike something like Kick-Ass, it doesn’t try too hard to reference other properties with similar qualities, such as Superman or Spider-Man. The guys never discuss teaming up to fight crime, or anything along those lines. How many teenage boys do you know who’d be so noble?
Nah, mainly they use their powers to mess with strangers, mock their enemies, and video tape themselves doing stuff that’s awesome — basically, the exact same stuff actual teenagers do, minus the part where they can fly and move things with their mind. It also allows for some better cinematography than you’re likely to get from other found footage movies, since one of Andrew’s first practical uses for his abilities is to make the camera fly. This gets us over the “Wait — who’s filming this?” hump that’s so typical of these movies.
As the marketing reveals, it’s all fun and games until someone decides to use their powers for nefarious purposes, and Chronicle culminates with a show-stopping telekinetic battle in downtown Seattle, prominently featuring the Space Needle. For a reasonably low-budget film, it’s pretty spectacular and a lot of fun. What the found footage angle adds is a certain YouTube-y “Oh my god I can’t believe this is really happening!” twist to the spectacle of seeing buses hurdling through the air and two humans zipping about Superman-style. What would it actually look like if some abhorrent teenage supervillain decided to throw a nuclear-sized hissy fit? If Chronicle had committed fully to this voyeuristic conceit, perhaps the audience could simultaneously scroll through snarky tweets from uninvolved parties on their phones about what’s happening on screen, like: “I never wanted to live in Seattle because I hear it rains all the time — but now it’s raining MEN!” (Oh, I jest. But there will come a day… you’ll see.)
There are many commendable things about Chronicle. Alas, the found footage device itself is hit or miss. While it does give this material a more grounded, more contemporary spin, it can also be distracting as we view footage from a number of different cameras besides Andrew’s. It’s unlikely that any one person actually found all this footage and edited it together like this, so what, exactly are we watching? Found footage can’t help but have a certain subjectivity; in Chronicle, it begins as Andrew’s, but then a pointless female blogger character turns up to needlessly film some moments and it feels painfully forced. Really, found footage movies shouldn’t try to wedge in so many other cameras, or what’s the point? The whole gimmick is to convey a singular point of view.
As for the story, Chronicle wisely avoids most cliches and retains a certain level of unpredictability. The characters are somewhat thin, but they’re more or less believable as teenage boys, and all three leads do well at selling both the human-sized stories and the super-sized ones. Chronicle may be a shade darker and more intelligent than you’d expect such a film to be, which, curiously, only alerted to me to how it might have been darker and more intelligent still. There’s a disturbing Columbine undertone in the character of Andrew, a bullied teen who decides he’s had enough torment and takes his aggression out violently, unthinkingly, against the masses; he starts with revenge against specific tormenters, but as we often see in such stories, once you begin hurting people, it’s easy to get carried away. Could Chronicle have delved deeper into this subtext? Could it have really said something about bullying and retaliation? About those who use homicide as a means to suicide?
Yes, but then it probably wouldn’t have been PG-13, and may not have made back its budget. Chronicle isn’t that interested in the more nuanced details of how such powers might affect the social politics of high school — it might have been nice to see how these guys banded together against their peers in order to “rule the school,” as they say. After all, the vibe here is more The Craft than Spider-Man. This story might have gotten a lot of mileage out of exploring that “us vs. them” angle. Instead, it barely skims the surface; and it might have been nice if not all the female characters were completely worthless. It’s curiously characteristic of these found footage films — which, technically, should be more intimate than your average omniscient filmmaker fare — to not bother looking too deep into their heroes. Chronicle, like its bigger-budgeted brethren, is more interested in the grandiosity and spectacle.
So at least that works. For the purposes of this review, let’s forget about the movie Chronicle might have been — darker, more nuanced, thought-provoking — and examine what it is. An entertaining popcorn flick that’s still smarter than your average found footage movie, in large part thanks to the character of Andrew (and acting of Dane DeHaan) that almost unwittingly gives us a comic book-sized portrait of a character we usually only see in creepy indie dramas (or on the news, after they’ve done something horrible). Director Josh Trank has made an impressive feature debut with memorable characters and a handful of terrifically effective moments (a school talent show, and a fantastic little scene involving a spider).
I certainly wouldn’t be unhappy to see a Chronicle 2 in the near future…