Reviewed by Abigail Nussbaum
10 February 2012
Chronicle is a found-footage superhero movie, which is to say that it takes a tired, overused premise and tells it in a tired, overused style. Implausibly, the result is something fresh and immediate. We've seen so many variations on the superhero story in recent years. In particular, we've seen variations on Chronicle's subset, which tries to imagine how "real" people might react to superpowers—some soapy (Heroes (2006-2010); No Ordinary Family (2010)), some rude (Misfits (2009-); Hancock (2008)), and some that just take the “super” part out of the equation (Kick-Ass (2010); SUPER (2010)). It's hard not to sigh at yet another attempt. Found footage, meanwhile, which was originally intended as a way of short-circuiting the artificiality of composed, professional camerawork and injecting a sense of realism into a narrative, has, through massive overuse, quickly become a cliché. Its tropes—shaky cameras, out of focus shots, disorienting pans—are now so familiar that they seem as artificial as the professional camerawork they’ve replaced. And yet somehow this mash-up of overexposed concepts—combined with a slick control of its medium that belies the film's relatively modest budget—results in one of the most engaging superhero films of the last few years. Chronicle may not have much to add to the discussion of what "real" superheroes would be like, but it depicts them, and their powers, in a way that makes them seem brand new.
Director Josh Trank, filming from a script by Max Landis (the story is credited to both Landis and Trank), starts off the film as the mundane, perhaps deliberately dull video diary of Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a lonely, morose high school senior from a suburb of Seattle. Dragged to a party at an abandoned farm by his cousin and sort-of friend Matt (Alex Russell), an amiable slacker who self-consciously shows off his knowledge of Western philosophy, Andrew finds himself roped into an expedition. Matt, along with star athlete and future class president Steve (Michael B. Jordan), has discovered a mysterious tunnel on the farm's grounds, and they enlist Andrew to film their exploration of it. What the three boys discover within gifts them with superpowers. The remainder of Andrew's diary charts the development of those powers and how the boys choose to use them.
One of the reasons that superhero films have become so tedious is that their early beats are rather samey. It's hard, the nth time that it happens, to feel much sympathy with the characters' shock and dismay at developing powers that we'd taken for granted going into the movie theater. Chronicle's video diary style, however, helps to put us back in Andrew, Matt, and Steve's frame of reference. When Andrew stops a baseball in midair, or Matt tries to build a LEGO tower with his mind, these acts feel so incongruous with the sense of ordinariness imposed by the found footage style that the boys' shock and glee become infectious. Later in the film, Trank uses the conventions of found footage films to more dramatic effect. When Andrew uses his powers on a car that has been tailgating Matt, causing it to veer off the road and into a lake, Matt and Steve react the way characters in found footage films (and people in real life) do in these situations—they run around saying inane things like "Oh my God!" and "What did you do?!" again and again. In the midst of their freakout, however, the car begins to rise out of the lake, and the contrast between that act and the ordinariness of Matt and Steve's reactions helps to drive home the extraordinariness of what Andrew is doing. (It helps, of course, that the special effects are seamless, and in general the film looks magnificent—Andrew is allegedly shooting his diary on a dinky video camera but the film was actually shot with high definition digital cameras, which deliver crystal clear visuals and gorgeous, saturated colors.)
There's a similar mixture of ordinary and extraordinary in the boys' reactions to their powers. Testing their abilities takes the form of playing pranks, as when Steve moves a car parked in grocery store parking lot to a different row, and then erupts into giggles when its confused owner searches for it. In one of the film's most powerful scenes, Steve tries to get Andrew to come out of his shell by enrolling him in the school talent show as a magician. Once again, couching the boys' use of their powers in a familiar, mundane format—this time, a magic act—helps to drive home how marvelous those powers are—a magician who could do what Andrew does, floating cards and juggling balls in the air, skipping on a tightrope, would bring down the most jaded house. But what's truly remarkable about this scene is the change that comes over Andrew as the act progresses, his shyness and anxiety melting into joy at the applause that his newfound talent has earned him. This same joy characterizes much of the first half of the film, as the boys revel in their new abilities, and again the naturalistic style of their reactions makes it impossible not to be carried along with their exuberance.
As the boys grow more powerful, Chronicle shifts from injecting the displays of their abilities into mundane settings to all-out superpower extravaganzas. Once again, however, the film's format brings home the magnitude of what the boys are doing, at no point more powerfully than when they discover that they can fly. In an exhilarating scene, we watch as the camera, carried by Andrew, zips through the air, occasionally dipping under the clouds as Matt and Steve swoop (and whoop) past, their ebullience only cut short by an impromptu, and terrifying, encounter with an airliner. This is in many ways the high point of the boys' friendship—soon Andrew's over-reliance on his powers and unwillingness to conceal them will drive a wedge between the three, culminating in a knock-down superhero fight on the streets of Seattle. With that fight, Chronicle completes its transition to the more straightforward, familiar template of a standard superhero story, but the method by which it has brought us to this point is so roundabout and unusual that even this hoary trope feels fresh and immediate.
Though its handling of its style and subject are impressive, Chronicle is less successful where its characters are concerned. One of the advantages of the found footage style is that it allows writers to introduce information about their characters and setting in relatively oblique ways—a half-heard line of dialogue from out of frame, a character in the background who believes they are unobserved. For all that it makes such good use of the found footage format in other respects, Chronicle doesn't take advantage of this option, and baldly lays out most of what we need to know about its characters. We know that the boys feel closer and happier than ever on the day of their flight because there's a scene in which they tell each other so, for example. When Matt remarks to Andrew that filming every moment of his life could be viewed as a distancing tactic, the film isn't content to let that comment stand—Andrew must reply that this is what he wants. Nor are we allowed to guess at Andrew's reasons for wanting distance from his life—the film spells out that Andrew's father is a violent drunk and that his mother is dying, and a scene in which he obliviously lies in bed as the camera floats over him while, from outside the room, the impossibly loud and clear voice of his father tries to buy pain medication he can't afford is as good as a title card explaining that for Andrew, his powers are yet another means of distancing himself from a bad situation.
The three boys are familiar types—the resentful loner, the too-cool-for-school underachiever, the golden boy—and the film doesn't seem interested in complicating those types. This comes to seem particularly unfortunate in light of Andrew's turn towards villainy in the film's final act; the bullied nerd who goes postal is a pernicious stereotype, and one that genre fans in particular should be sensitive to. Nor does Chronicle work very hard to develop the characters in light of their new situation and powers. There's a potentially interesting seam of story in our growing realization that developing superpowers doesn't do much to alter the boys' situations or social standing—Steve's friendship does more to increase Andrew's popularity than his powers, and when he loses that friendship he goes right back to being a nobody—but this is only hinted at, never developed. Matt also had the potential to be an interesting character. As the film opens he is just starting to realize that the pose of uncaring detachment he has affected throughout high school is, in its own way, as conceited and self-satisfying as the jockeying for cool points he had rejected, and there's obviously an interesting story to be told about a character who realizes the falseness of their sense of superiority even as they become an actual übermensch. But again, and like most everything else relating to the characters, the film leaves his growth largely unexplored.
Even taking those flaws into account, however, Chronicle remains one of the most original and exciting superhero films to have emerged in a long time. The film ends with some potential for a sequel—we never find out, for example, what gave the boys their powers, nor do we know who compiled the chronicle itself (as of the end of the film none of the three boys are in a position to do so, nor do they have access to all of the film’s materials). Which raises an important question—do Trank and Landis have more than one good idea in them? Chronicle works because it takes two tired gimmicks and mashes them together into something new, but that's something that may very well not work the second time around. It remains to be seen whether Trank and Landis can keep their formula fresh, or even come up with another twist on their premise. But on the promise of Chronicle, I'm hopeful, and looking forward to whatever they do next.