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Movie Review: ‘Chronicle’

February 3, 2012
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Note: If you have any interest at all in seeing this film, I firmly advise that you go in completely cold and don’t read this until after you’ve seen it.

I don’t know if Chronicle is the first found-footage superhero film, but I’m certain it’s the best—and will remain so for a very long time.

I had no idea what the film was about, and when it opened with a shot of a gloomy teenager filming the door to his bedroom while his drunk father angrily shouts to let him in, I groaned. Goddammit, another one of those movies. When the kid said he was going to start filming everything, I groaned again. Dying mother? Ugh. Ugly kid clad in black? Blarg. By the time the kid started filming his cousin driving him to school and brought up Schopenhauer, I was about ready to check out.

Then it took a turn from the typical High-School-Sucks Movie into Horror, and I started to get interested. Then it took another turn into the Jackass realm. And just when I thought it would settle on Superhero Film, it just lingered on having a lot of fun with superpowers. But the best twists are saved until the end. Needless to say, when one character threw a baseball at another and it stopped dead in midair, I was hooked.

In short, this answers a similar question to the one Kick-Ass poses: “What if ordinary people were superheroes?” But Chronicle goes further by asking “What if ordinary people had super powers?” And it sticks to that premise with a dedication and realism that Kick-Ass never did. And it’s a much more interesting question. Not to bash Kick-Ass, but I had trouble believing that crime was an actual threat to his neighborhood—or at least a large enough one to compel him to fight it. Chronicle, on the other hand, simply thrusts a superpower upon three teenagers and explores how each of them deals with it; in other words, it’s a reaction rather than a call to action. It’s simple, avoids too many plot contrivances, and, most of all, keeps it interesting.

Similarly with the fact that the source of their powers is never explicitly revealed. While that may be regarded as lazy screenwriting, I nevertheless was very glad they didn’t pursue that storyline and instead stuck to the characters.

Another great touch is the structure, which is broken into a classical three acts, with about 10 minutes for the first, 10 minutes for the last, and 64 for the second. It’s unconventional in the same way as a documentary that begins focusing on one thing but in doing so discovers another far beyond what the filmmakers either intended or could have predicted. And it works perfectly. For the first five or so minutes, I wasn’t sure it wasn’t a documentary. Likewise, it adds to the documentary feel that the main characters, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and cool-kid/would-be class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are more or less unknowns.

Most ingenious, though, is its treatment of superpowers. The marketing slogan, “With great power comes NO responsibility,” sadly glosses over the most interesting point of the movie and the very answer to the question the film poses: “What if ordinary people had superpowers?” Chronicle argues that life would, ultimately, suck, presenting three dark and yet completely logical outcomes: Either you’d die trying to save someone; die trying to kill someone; or be branded an outcast forever.

Even the best of times aren’t very good. The boys have a lot of fun, but, as Andrew himself observes, in the end he’s more isolated from humanity than ever. Likewise, their superpower is treated as pretty much a drug, something that lets them escape from rather than solve their problems—it doesn’t get Andrew the girl, it doesn’t cure his mother, it doesn’t resolve his issues with his father (and actually exacerbates them); nor does it get Matt the girl; and poor Steve suffers the most—it may make him a better lover, but it destroys all his ambitions and dreams.

Finally, the camerawork is fantastic: nauseatingly shaky at first, then more focused, and the final sequence is a dazzling orgy of various cameras—cop cars, hospital monitors, security cams, cell phones—that are necessary to keep up with the action, but also gives the final, city-wide battle an escalating sense of scale. And that first jump cut to the clouds (to say nothing of a brilliant sequence where Andrew saves Steve from falling while also catching the camera) is something special.

There are, of course, flaws. It’s inevitable in a movie like this that there’s going to be some stretches to keep the camera rolling, and the introduction of Matt’s ex, Casey (Ahsley Henshaw), as another obsessive camera-toter is obviously shoe-horned, even moreso at times when she should be doing anything but. Likewise, Andrew’s not an especially likeable protagonist, though even that works both ways, as his transformation is the most interesting character arc and ultimately climaxes in yet another shift. These are quibbles, but they deserve mention.

This review may read as rhapsodic, but I think Chronicle merits more credit than the simple found-footage-superhero-movie classification I fear it’ll receive. Landis and Trank have resisted the temptations of both the found-footage and superhero genres and made something complex, thought-provoking, and distinct. And all in just 80-some minutes.

Rating: 4.5/5

Chronicle is rated PG-13. Directed by Josh Trank. Written by Max Landis. Starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, and Joe Vaz

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