Last month, there was a movie called The Devil Inside. I decided to avoid that release, but not just because of its godawful reviews. I avoided the film because I knew exactly what was going to happen based purely on the trailer. The film opens with a title card implying that the footage shown is real, we’re introduced to our annoying cast of characters, freaky paranormal shit happens, the whole thing is captured on an impossibly durable yet incoherently shaky camera, everybody dies, the menace remains entirely mysterious and ready to kill again, cut to black, add a title card saying that no one was ever found, The End.
In all of cinema history, I don’t think there’s ever been a sub-genre that grew more stale more quickly than the “found footage” mockumentary. I’ll grant that Apollo 18 took place on the moon, Troll Hunter was a microbudget foreign film, and Cloverfield revolutionized the use of viral marketing and secrecy in promotion. But when you get right down to it, these superficial differences are all for naught because they all follow the exact same goddamn plot. Every single one of them follows the story beats and points that I just listed, down to a T.
[NOTE: I'm not counting Catfish. That isn't really a "found footage" film, since the characters didn't leave their footage behind to be found. They set out to make a documentary about online relationships and that's exactly what they did. The fictional characters successfully made their movie, and it was the mockumentary screened in theaters.]
Anyway, after so many years of “Let’s be like The Blair Witch Project and/or Paranormal Activity,” it looks like the sub-genre may finally be turning a corner. Project X is coming later this year, and it appears to be a “found footage” movie in which crazy shit happens due to entirely mundane causes, and annoying teens are at risk of dying for reasons that won’t be the least bit mysterious. Yes, the movie also appears to be a commentary on the modern ubiquity of cameras and the ease with which we can spread videos all over the world — which is the underlying theme of every single “found footage” movie ever made — but at least it’s expressing the theme in a novel way.
Though first, we have Chronicle, which offers another very unique spin on the “found footage” sub-genre: This time, it’s about teens with superpowers. More than that, the movie isn’t about a camera crew out to capture superheroes and supervillains on film (which might make for a decent movie as well, come to think of it). Instead, the main characters film themselves figuring out their powers by doing all sorts of crazy stunts. You know, like kids of the YouTube generation most assuredly would.
I went into Chronicle with high anticipation. I was expecting nothing less than a game-changer for the “found footage” sub-genre, in addition to an enjoyable film in its own right. What I got was a movie that was flawed yet enjoyable, and a “found footage” movie that doesn’t turn the style on its ear, though it’s sure as hell a step in the right direction.
The movie focuses on three high school seniors, though it’s unquestionably the story of Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan). When we first meet Andrew, he’s a quiet and withdrawn bully target with an ailing mother. He starts filming everything partly as a kind of artistic outlet, and partly for security against his abusive dad. It’s also heavily implied that Andrew might also be subconsciously using the camera as a kind of barrier between him and the world.
Anyway, pretty much the only reason why Andrew is able to keep going to school is Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), his handsome and popular cousin. Matt is also friends with Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), a charismatic joker who plays on the football team and aspires to be a politician. Very early in the film, Matt drags Andrew to a rave and Steve just happens to meet them there. Together, they find an enormous hole in the ground and go on an impromptu spelunking trip. As you do.
In the hole, our trio of twits discover a glowing mysterious plot device. Somehow (the camera shorts out, so we don’t actually see the event) this plot device grants them telekinesis. As our protagonists learn to use this power (taping everything along the way with a brand new camera, of course), they find other applications for the ability, such as flight and super strength. It’s also implied at one point that they can control the weather. Don’t ask me how.
A key reason why this movie works is because the camaraderie between our three leads never feels anything less than authentic. Each of them get their chance to shine and they’re all acted superbly well. It would be so easy to turn against them when they’re playing pranks on unsuspecting civilians, yet the film successfully manages to portray the telekinetic shenanigans in a likable way. After all, these kids don’t really mean any harm, they’re just doing stupid things like teens so often do. Additionally, their actions and dialogue feel 100% relatable and humorous, and we’re of course seeing the entire film from their POV. Thus, the characters work extremely well as audience surrogates, which makes it easy to emotionally invest in them and to get a certain “wish fulfillment” kick out of the proceedings.
Yet at the same time, the movie never lets go of the fact that these are just kids. Our heroes are playing with something they don’t understand, and the danger of it getting out of hand is a constant presence. They still have entire lives to live, and the possibility that those lives may be cut short is always presented as a very real one. Furthermore, these young men are graduating, meeting girls, and going through all of the other challenges that come with being a high school senior. Their development as superbeings gives them powers and confidence that bolster their development as juveniles, and the two arcs dovetail together beautifully.
But as I’ve said before, though Steve and Matt both learn and grow over the course of the film, this is Andrew’s story first and foremost. His powers are easily the strongest of the bunch, and he’s also the one with the most confidence and social status to gain. Alas, Andrew is still the product of a broken home. His mom needs more help than he can provide, his dad is still an abusive jackhole, and the bullies at school haven’t gone anywhere. As a result — and as implied by the trailer — Andrew has a very tumultuous character arc which spans everywhere from being the life of the party to going Tetsuo Shima on everyone’s ass. The character’s development takes a few illogical turns, though it’s a testament to DeHaan’s talent that he was able to sell every moment. In his hands, Andrew is a very tragic figure. He’s an intelligent and well-meaning young man who might potentially be a great superhero someday, if only he had the strength to move past his emotional damage.
Or maybe he just needed a copy of “Watchmen.” I’m sure a bright kid like him might have learned something from Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan.
Anyway, you might be wondering how Andrew could be the main character if he’s the guy with the camera. How could we follow a character we never see? First of all, I’ll remind you that he’s telekinetic. He doesn’t need to hold the camera. Secondly, all three of our main characters take turns with the camera, so everyone gets his fair share of screen time. Thirdly, the film actually utilizes security cameras, news cameras, cell phone cameras, and any other cameras in viewing range. There’s even a pseudo-love interest with a vlog who literally serves absolutely no purpose in this film, other than to provide a backup camera.
This brings me to my main complaint with the film: For everything in this movie that feels wonderfully authentic, there’s something that feels completely artificial. One example is the cinematography, which looks far too neat and professional to be the product of all-natural lighting and amateur-quality cameras. On a similar note, the movie has to go to a lot of laughably contrived lengths to get a camera at the precise time and place where one is needed. There are so many different cameras in this movie that the issue of who collected all this footage — not to mention how and why — is a huge plot hole. Hell, there’s some footage in this film that could not possibly have found its way into anyone’s hands.
On a different note, this movie supposedly takes place in Seattle. Bullshit. Though I’ve only passed through that town once or twice — and though I didn’t go to a ton of wild parties until I turned 21 — this movie does not look like any place in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up. The houses are all way too big and extravagant, the school is way too fancy, and the students all look far and away too attractive. This doesn’t look like a Seattle high school, it looks like some LA movie exec’s idea of what a generic high school looks like. I realize that it’s SOP for most Hollywood treatments of high school, but this is supposed to be a “found footage” mockumentary. Films of this genre live and die on how well they suspend disbelief, and seeing all these models try to pass themselves off as high schoolers completely broke the illusion for me.
Last but not least, the VFX in this movie are very hit and miss. Some shots are surprisingly effective and lifelike, while others look like laughably bad CGI. Then again, the VFX does wonders for the climax, which is a tremendous clash with epic scope and a six or higher on the Richter scale. Also, the flight scenes are almost worth the price of admission by themselves.
Finally, I suppose I should address the movie’s franchise potential. Though the door is certainly left open for a sequel, I don’t really see what might be gained by continuing the story. For one thing, the movie doesn’t feel anything like a superhero origin story. For another thing, the heart of this movie is in its trio of lead characters, and they… well, this movie doesn’t end exactly as most other “found footage” movies end, I’ll put it that way.
All told, I don’t really want this film to lead to more movies with Andrew, Matt, and Steve. I want this film to lead to more movies with Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan. All three of them did outstanding work in this movie and I’d very much like to see what other performances they have in them. As for writer/director Josh Trask, he was recently rumored as a frontrunner to helm the Fantastic Four reboot. The very thought of him working with a budget of that size gets me salivating.
Chronicle works equally well as a superhero film and as a “found footage” film, providing a lot of new ideas to two cinematic sub-genres in desperate need of a shot in the arm. Though many parts feel artificial and forced, the three main characters and their friendship all ring true. Though some of the VFX falter, the creativity and ambition on display are captivating. Though the movie has its flaws, they’re pretty much all redeemed by the climax and by the flying sequences. Very enjoyable and a lot of fun, this one comes highly recommended.