‘Chronicle’ takes two genres to new heights
Let me start off by saying that Chronicle is just cool. It takes two bankable, and perhaps overused genres (superhero and found-footage) and successfully combines them. In the process, debut-director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis manage to make a movie that is among the best of both genres. There is something to be said about making a superhero movie in the found-footage style that allows the special effects and the acquisition of said powers to be more believable. At the end of this 83-minute telekinetic mind fuck, you’re left bleeding from your nose but happy you dropped the money.
While the plot surrounds three teenagers, it avoids the trap of being a teen angst movie because the creators seem to understand today’s youth, assume that the audience does too. This allows it to become believably dark while glossing over all-too-common, yet realistic themes of sex, drugs, drinking, and excessive cellphone use. Teenagers today don’t really act like the teenagers in Twilight. They actually do have sex and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the charismatic, popular jock, black protagonist describes using his telekinesis for improved sexual prowess. Philosophical cool cousin Matt (Alex Russell) alludes to smoking marijuana before gaining his powers, because let’s face it, if you could control things with your mind, you wouldn’t really need to smoke weed anymore.
Nearly every superhero movie has explored the meeting point between super power and will power. Where Chronicle deviates is in its credibly and creatively crafted scenarios after the protagonists level up. The event that gives them their powers is intentionally left vague, likely for the possibility of a sequel. But what the Trank and Landis team does so well is touch on the areas of plausible disbelief to remind you that they are aware these moments exist, which is important when you’re watching a movie about people flying. A brief conversation about the origin event as to whether the causes is radiation or a government project abruptly cuts forward after mere mention to cover this base and move on. They quickly touch on their telekinesis acting like a muscle that you have to workout and train, or else you strain the muscle and get a nosebleed. A great scene involving Andrew (Dane DeHaan) telekinetically yanking teeth out of his bully’s mouth and then hiding in the bathroom stall while holding them in bloody hands, provides insight on how they envision their techniques with their mind without lingering too long on the intricacies of the telekinetic process.
The movie’s many quick scenes provide a fathomable framework for found footage camera existence. Part of the reason found footage films work is because they add a, dare I say, cheap authenticity to incredible situations. They help mask or blur the use of special effects in a way that makes them feel more real, perhaps through graininess and medium. This worked for Paranormal Activity and The Devil Inside but even more so for Chronicle. But where found footage movies often lose viewers is explaining why a character is holding a camera at certain points in the story. Depressed loner Andrew, who has a dying mother and a drunk abusive asshole for a father, hides behind a camera to “create a barrier” from all the shit that falls on his life, which is believable. Uptight critics will try to nitpick reasons as to why the camera is capturing a shot in certain scenes but pretty early on Andrew learns how to suspend the camera around him like he’s “controlling the left joystick in a first-person shooter” (DeHaan eloquently described this in an interview). You can then plausibly deny the need for a “cameraman.” Matt’s love interest is a blogger who also films everything and allows the found-footage format to continue through scenes that don’t involve Andrew. Some people would call this move questionable, I think it smartly exploits a loophole in a dying narrative style.
The writing and direction commits to the found footage formula by regularly directing attention to the presence of a camera. After the scene you see in the trailer where Andrew force pushes a car off the highway and nearly kills the driver, a cop asks Andrew if his camera is still on and filming but doesn’t ask to see the footage. Shotty police work Officer (played by actor Lance Elliot, yeah, I had to look that up). After an argument with Matt, Andrew takes off in flight and aggressively snatches his camera out of the air. Found footage is a hard way to tell a story throughout an entire movie but by stretching the limits of the capture mediums (some scenes are shown through cell phones, security cameras, and dash cams) you can mostly continue suspending your disbelief. What I want to know is, what character edits all of these found footage films?
Another reason why this movie worked so well for me was the acting. The three protags had such palpable chemistry. J.J. Abrams once discussed the use of relative no-name actors for found footage films to work. Another thing necessary for found footage films to work is good acting by the cameraman, both behind and in front of the camera. In Cloverfield, T.J. Miller basically defined this role. His humor through voice acting and on-screen acting were both on display. DeHaan takes the next step though as he is in front of the camera much more and is able to express a wider range of visual emotion. Chronicle’s casting crew was on their A game casting these C list actors and I hope all three get many future roles like Miller deservingly did after Cloverfield.
Ultimately, what I loved about Chronicle is what I love about Christopher Nolan’s Batman, M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, Abram’s Cloverfield and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man: their willingness to be dark at times, cool at others, smart all the time, and predominantly well-acted. It’s not wildly unpredictable but it’s unpredictable enough to feel completely original. No doubt some fanboys will cry foul and say that the story is basically Akira but from where I’m standing, the plots are pretty different. It’s hard to make an origin story 100% original and Chronicle doesn’t need to nor want to. Neither Chronicle nor Akira were the first movies to deal with telekinesis, so move past it fanboys. Viewers can find joy in the slight adjustments to the archetypes and story arches that have already been depicted in superpower origin stories. From the movie’s initial trailer release to their poignant viral marketing, Chronicle reaches a level of cognizance that few movies of this type do. I would definitely watch a sequel (which may happen because the movie doubled its budget opening weekend alone) but really hope that Trank and Landis go on to make new genre-bending films that are equally as enjoyable as their inaugural effort. A handful of sequels were better than originals, franchise films usually ruin their initial integrity, and nearly always, sequels are merely cash grabs. Chronicle felt nothing like a cash grab, even though it most definitely cashed in on the popularity of its genres.