Starring Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan and Dane DeHaan
Last month, the found-footage exorcism film, “The Devil Inside,” opened to almost $30 million, even though it was critically savaged and loathed by audiences who booed the movie at its conclusion. To date, I’ve found the entire concept of found-footage films pretty useless. The goal is to create something more realistic, but it always comes off like a cheap gimmick. All of them fail because of the one basic conceit they can never really justifiably explain: Why the hell do people keep filming?
You have movies where monsters, ghosts, and supernatural killers wreak havoc; yet, someone always has a camera in hand and films the chaos. Abandoning the basic principles of survival in order to film the event feels so unrealistic. “Chronicle” tries to address that concern by presenting the idea of capturing an event for posterity. Eventually, the camera becomes a confessional for someone rapidly descending into madness. The high-concept film merges documentary-style fiction and the ever-popular superhero film.
Three high-school students stumble onto an alien artifact that grants them all telekinetic powers. The video camera is worked into the narrative as organically as possible, as it films them testing their powers. It’s far from perfect. There are moments where I wondered why a camera was being pointed in a particular direction.
I like the idea of a kid getting super powers and creating a video diary of his progression from anti-social nerd to the most feared person on the planet. The story itself is right out of comic books. The adage of “with great power comes great responsibility” is at the core of “Chronicle.” What works about the film is how warped the concept becomes in the “real” world. Early on three friends have fun with their new abilities. And who wouldn’t? They play pranks in a toy store, move people’s cars around in a parking lot—the kind of things one would expect from teenagers. These are normal kids having fun with the gifts they’ve been given.
Matt (Alex Russell) and Steve (Michael B. Jordan) are more socially acclimated prior to the life-changing event. Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is another story; his mother is terminally ill and his father is an alcoholic. Before being given extraordinary capabilities, he’s something of a loner. His transformation begins to change him. Alex and Michael are reluctant to use their powers in public, and they believe they need rules. Andrew plays along, but his ascension from homosapien into something superior awakens deep demons.
“Chronicle” works as a movie in spite of the found-footage concept, not because of it. The time spent devoted to the three main characters makes it bearable, as they are well written and realistically rendered. So many found-footage films skimp on characterization and rely on deliberate pacing. Director Josh Trank creates a very grounded group of people and never allows the more fantastic elements to envelop the overall story.
The movie really takes off when Andrew begins to use his abilities for personal gain, lashing out at those who picked on him and robbing a convenience store. His instability leads his friends to confront him with deadly results. The final third of the film is gonzo. It quickly changes gear from a small story with fantastic elements to a mind-blowing confrontation between super-powered foes. The third act almost feels like its own movie. It’s so far removed from the very reserved first two acts. The ending works because it finally forces the characters to make a choice. Up until that point, life and death, power and responsibility … they are just words.
“Chronicle” reminded me of the best silver-age comic books. The stuff that Stan Lee penned, when the villain was always a mirror image of the hero. Circumstances make one person a hero and one a villain, and that’s the most interesting aspect of “Chronicle.” A lot of it reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable,” which I contend is the best super-hero movie ever made. While it never elevates to that level of excellence, I would still be willing to call “Chronicle” inspired. Like other found-footage films, it’s remarkably brief. There’s no fat here—just a very pointed driving story that turns out to be one of the most unique takes on the superhero genre in quite some time.