An early February release sets the bar of expectations pretty low for films, especially ones that have an action element. We expect the studios to hold their blockbusters and better films for the spring and summer months. So even after hearing some good word of mouth, I wasn’t really expecting all that much from Chronicle (incidentally the first film from 2012 I’ve viewed). But it had an intriguing premise, and it sounded like it might at least be decent, so I decided to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
Told in the “found footage” format (hence the name), Chronicle tells the story of three high school seniors who, after encountering a strange object, find themselves endowed with gradually-increasing telekinetic abilities. The Chronicle in question is what happens as they learn how and when to use their powers. It’s worth noting that although this is certainly a “super powers” movie, it is definitely not a “super hero” movie. These are just ordinary kids, with extraordinary powers.
Chronicle starts as a personal film project by Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan). Andrew is a troubled child with a dying mother (Bo Petersen, who is very convincing as an ailing woman trying to be strong for her son), and an abusive father. The father is played by Michael Kelly, who does a good job of portraying a drunk who is constantly on the verge of exploding. Unsurprisingly, this upbringing means that Andrew himself is a bit of a powder keg. We’re not told exactly what prompts his desire to chronicle every minute of his life, but it’s approached with the kind of single-minded focus that can be characteristic of introverted youngsters. And Andrew is very much the loner; his sole friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who is the kind of book worm who reads philosophy not so much because he enjoys it, but because he thinks it’ll make him look smart.
These traits are exemplified at the party that Matt drags Andrew to. Andrew won’t bring himself to stop filming, even though the other kids find it strange. Matt, meanwhile, uses Andrew’s filming as an “in” to start chatting up his high-school crush Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). And here the audience is also introduced to the third major character of the film, popular kid Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan). Steve is a friend of Matt’s — he seems to be a friend of everybody except loners such as Andrew, and even then it appears to be more because Andrew was unapproachable rather than any intention on Steve’s part to avoid him. But when the students discover a sinkhole near the barn where the rave is being held, Steve does approach Andrew to film him and Matt as they explore the cavern deeper.
Wait… if you’re filming us, and that’s the camera in your hand, who’s that following us now?
The trio encounters a strange object in the cave, and as a result of the encounter, they find themselves with telekinetic abilities. The development and exploration of these powers forms the bulk of the film, and fortunately for the film, director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis really knock it out of the park here. As I said above, this isn’t a superhero film, it’s a film about kids with super powers. A superhero film, by necessity, has to gloss over the development of most of the powers; the hero jumps from barely figuring it out to full-fledged hero in a single scene transition. But while there’s a bit of that here, the film mostly delights in letting the audience discover the boys’ powers at the same time they do. We see them progress from stopping a baseball, to manipulating a pile of Lego bricks, to learning to fly — which as many other bloggers have noted, is one of the most fun scenes in the film and one of the few to really show how thrilling that would be to the average person.
And that’s the other big strength of the film — the fact that these kids do come across as being just average kids. They’re high school kids, nearly adults, and each of them, even popular kid Steve, are just a bit betwixt-and-between about it. And they react to everything the way people that age would. Class president Steve and loner Andrew would have no contact with each other in most circumstances, but the incident leads to all three spending most of their time together. And they use their powers as teenagers would — to play pranks, to have fun, and to show off when they can get away with it. And while Andrew’s abusive home life makes his story arc predictable, it still comes off naturally, as do the reactions of the other characters.
There is one significant weakness to the film, and that is the “found footage” aspect. While the film actually does do a reasonable job of answering the question “Why would someone keep filming through all of this?” that most of the genre leaves out, the format still has something of a negative effect on the narrative. Part of what has made movies succeed for so many decades is the pretense that what’s happening on the screen is actually happening; that suspension of disbelief allows the audience to buy into the narrative. It’s easy to see why directors might think the “found footage” gimmick would help that (“Look, it really did happen! We’re showing you the film that was taken when it happened!”) but I find that it actually does the opposite. It’s harder to pretend that there isn’t a camera between the audience and the characters when even in-story there really is. Every reference to the camera, every mention of filming, and most particularly every time the camera is changed (with some jarring examples later on in the film) is a reminder that yes, you’re watching a movie. And for me, at least, it takes me out of the movie. It’s the exact opposite of what’s desired. Plus, the shaky camera — used initially thankfully dropped later on as the characters control the camera mentally instead of by hand — can be irritating.
Sooner or later, some director is going to get the bright idea of combining the found footage shaky cam gimmick with the 3D gimmick. The ensuing mass motion sickness will lead to the unionization of theatre janitors.
Chronicle is a film that would have been better served by abandoning the “found footage” gimmick. A little bit here and there to establish that Andrew was filming everything would have sufficed, and would have enabled the use of less-irritating cinematographic techniques for the rest. The film does escape a lot of the traps of the genre by mostly having the camera “held” by the characters’ powers, but the need to have everything be viewed through an in-world camera does still have some limiting factors, especially in the final act.
Still, even with that non-negligible criticism, Chronicle is a fine film. The characters, and the performances that the actors put in, help restore the believability that the “found footage” gimmick takes away. And the way it explores the abilities in a manner that is generally glossed over by supernatural films makes it worth watching for fans of the genre.