Chronicle is the kind of pleasing effort that has the potential to surprise audiences. It does a decent-enough amount with a minimalist approach – still managing to create a spectacle that’s memorable and engaging. 20th Century Fox has once again snuck a fine genre effort into theaters under the radar. But where you knew what to expect from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this release is a different beast entirely. While Fox has pushed found footage and superhero elements to the hilt promoting Chronicle, the film surprisingly has none of the former and very little of the latter.
Let’s get something clear, this is not a found footage film. There’s no title card informing the audience where this footage was discovered, no coda at the end telling us that none of the involved parties have ever been seen since. While it bears resemblance to certain found footage films (Cloverfield in particular) it rejects some of deal breaker rules of the genre. This isn’t one camera, one perspective that’s been haphazardly edited – the audience can and will see through many eyes. Be they the main character’s camcorder, a blogger’s video diary, security footage, cell phone cameras; and the perspective can switch at any time. For better or worse, it’s something altogether different from a found footage film. Cameras are merely the window with which we can view the story, regardless of what kind of camera or who’s holding it.
Which isn’t to say that the more tedious tropes of found footage films aren’t still glaringly on display. Chronicle makes every effort to justify why alienated high-school student Andrew (Dane DeHann, who looks exactly like Leonardo DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape) needs to have a camera in his hands at all times. From the time he, his cousin Matt (Alex Russel), and popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) get acquainted with a strange alien manifestation buried deep underground, he documents every beat of the effects it has on them.
And those effects are truly something profound, as all three kids realize they have powers beyond any of their comprehension – abilities that continue to manifest themselves in the form of telekinesis, flight, psionic shielding and a few other surprises. But in the midst of all that, Andrew is still holding (sometimes with his hands and other times with his mind) his god damn camera. The cinéma vérité aspects of the film look good and lend the proceedings (and the characters) an authentic, stripped down feel, but this could have been conveyed just as easily if it were conceived as a straight-up film film, and without the above-mentioned conceit.
This is also not a superhero film. These guys, one more so than others, will use their powers to engage in some pretty un-heroic acts. While elements of heroism are on display for a few brief sequences, this is not an origin story. Instead, it takes an origin story that would feel right at home in a Marvel comic and applies it to real kids – and then sees that origin story off to a place that feels eerily realer than most. They use their powers to have fun, rib each other, get girls. To them this isn’t an opportunity to save lives, it’s a chance to see and do things we mortals have only ever dreamed about. Until it all goes to shit.
Historian and moralist John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton once said “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” More than anything, that’s what Chronicle is about. The choices made here, by one of these kids in particular, aren’t necessarily decisions he’d come to without these newfound powers. But that’s exactly why Chronicle works as an allegory for corruption. I give director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (yes, son of John) a lot of credit for avoiding the clichés of similar origin stories. What’s true for Peter Parker is most likely not true for you or I. With great power hardly comes great responsibility. Responsibility is something that’s earned, not inherited. Our main players, as any of us would, let their emotions and desires get the best of them, sometimes to disastrous and even fatal results.
If you haven’t been able to tell, I enjoyed the hell out of Chronicle. It’s a fun and engaging film with a lot of fantastic material to chew on. So while the footage concept is ultimately a failed approach, the ideas the film puts forth are not. The why and how of it all is never fully revealed, the source of these new powers is left to the imagination and for the viewer to decide what it ultimately means. But the real fun comes in the discovery of the potential of what they’re dealing with.
The first scene where the camera pans the skies, thousands of feet in the air, you realize they’re flying and get the sense you’re watching something unique. The reactions of the characters in this scene and the performances of the three principals lend the film a sense of honesty. The fun that their having gives dramatic weight to the immense despair they encounter later on. Michael B. Jordan’s performance in particular, as the popular, laid back social butterfly of the group stands out for feeling the most genuine. I’d have a ridiculous smile too if I could do any one of the number of neat tricks he and his mates are able to pull off. He’s who I suspect the audience will connect the most with.
Obviously the film hinges on Dane DeHann’s performance as Andrew, the conflicted social outcast and our portal character for the majority of the film. What starts as a way to capture his father beating him on film in time becomes an obsession, like the odd tick of a super villain. As I stated before, the documentary aspect feels tenuous at best, but I can somewhat buy into Andrew’s need to have a buffer between himself and his subjects. Though as his powers increase, the inclusion of the camera becomes more and more stained. Nevertheless, this is a character with the deck stacked against him. As he falls further and further into his decent, you begin to wonder if he’ll be able to pull himself back out. It’s an odd choice to have him be the film’s star, but where his character loses his hold on things we find Alex Russel’s Matt becoming more our moral anchor.
I absolutely recommend seeing Chronicle this weekend. If for nothing else, I haven’t seen a film like it in sometime. By exploring two genres that have been forced down our throat in recent years (and essentially rejecting them both), Chronicle becomes something unique and all its own. Your level of acceptance regarding the structuring of the film will go a long way in determining your enjoyment. But if you’re able to, at the very least, set that one obvious weakness aside then you might find there’s a lot to like.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars