REVIEW SUMMARY: A “found footage” superhero movie that shows a good deal of craft, skill, and intellectual and emotional honesty.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: After encountering a mysterious artifact, a trio of high school students must learn to cope with newfound superpowers before their lives spin out of control.
PROS: Effective use of documentary techniques; believable cast of unknowns; strong special effects; exceptional direction (and on occasion use of misdirection); intellectual and emotional honesty of the benefits and costs of acquiring superheroic powers.
CONS: Filmmaking techniques that are, by this point, bordering on cliché; sometimes predictable; distinct lack of women.
Part of the appeal of superhero movies comes from the idea that somebody would use their powers in a way that most of us would not. Superman’s alien heritage makes him ideal as a savior of humanity because, as Jor-El reminds him in Superman: The Movie, even though he was raised as a human being, he is not one himself. Peter Parker initially uses his powers to make a quick buck, only to find that his own immediate goals have accidentally and indirectly killed his uncle. Tony Stark becomes Iron Man out of necessity, using his scientific knowledge to escape from Wong-Chu. Compare these to Josh Trank’s Chronicle, which, like Pat Cadigan’s “Two,” suggests that adolescents gifted with incredible strength and the ability to fly might behave in exactly the way most adolescents would.
For example? Screenwriter Max Landis considers that initially they’d treat it like a drug. When Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and their friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan) develop their telekinetic abilities after discovering a glowing crystalline object in a cave, they use it to play pranks: moving shopping carts down aisles of a toy store, scaring young children by causing a teddy bear to dance, and moving a shopper’s car from one parking space into another, all the while giggling as if fairly stoned, recalling stories of people who, when dropping acid, believed they could fly. (And when the trio learns they can fly? Pretty much the same thing.) It makes a good deal of sense; after all, wouldn’t acquiring superpowers change your perception of your body, to say nothing of the world around you?
It also would change the way you interact. When a 4X4 pickup tries to pass the trio’s car on the road, Andrew knocks it off the road and into a nearby river. Matt, who spends a good deal of the movie quoting Schopenhauer, Jung, and Plato, insists on rules; he understands that, for all of the fun that could be had, for all of the school talent shows they could win (Steve and Andrew perform magic tricks in front of an astounded student audience), people could get hurt. Andrew, a target of not only bullies but also an abusive father, comes to believe (as is typical) the three of them are becoming “apex predators,” and so his acts of revenge surprise neither Matt and Steve nor viewers themselves.
The best superhero movies focus on creating archetypes: what are The Dark Knight and Captain America if not attempts at mythmaking? Pragmatism, by contrast, drives Chronicle. It’s more interested in examining what would happen to ordinary people if given extraordinary powers, putting it ahead of other, larger superhero movies. Trank and Landis (both wrote the story) understand these recent four-color myths, and despite their obvious debt to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (as well as Philip Wylie and Stan Lee, among others) never once make mention of the Man of Steel, the Flash, or other possible character in the DC or Marvel universes. It frees Chronicle from delving into the subtle postmodernism of Unbreakable or Smallville, yet doesn’t quite ring true. The popular Steve and bohemian Matt might not be versed in the semiotics of sequential art, but Andrew, given his precocious, outsider nature, seems the type who would.
Trank directs his first feature film with Chronicle, but steers clear of most of the major missteps often befalling first-time directors, especially in approaching the movie as a “found footage documentary a la The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, and The Last Exorcism. Rather than filming everything with a single camera, Chronicle adds the camera of Matt’s girlfriend Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), surveillance footage, camera phones from passersby, and even news helicopter footage, providing a broader scope than most faux documentaries. It helps that his cast, young newcomers all, play everything with earnestness and a lack of knowingness that adds a good deal of verisimilitude. Landis (who writes his first feature-length screenplay here) maintains a great deal of intimacy with his three core characters and never resorts to a standard good versus evil tale. Unfortunately, Andrew’s father Richard (Michael Kelly), a former firefighter who lost his job due to an injury and must care for Andrew’s dying mother, hobbles Landis’s script. Though often surprisingly sympathetic (at one point Andrew, filming himself in his bedroom, his camera floating above his bed, overhears his father pleading with a pharmacy to refill a prescription), his interactions with Andrew threaten to become comically overblown. Fortunately, Kelly maintains control even when Richard slips into cliché.
Walking in to Chronicle, I expected something slight yet diverting, an entertaining ninety minutes that didn’t outstay its welcome. Instead, Chronicle, by focusing on its characters, and by avoiding most of the potential metafictional traps, cuts far more deeply. It likely won’t find favor among core superhero comic book fans because, at heart, it’s not a heroic movie. Contrary to Uncle Ben’s wisdom, great power does not necessarily entail great responsibility.