With great power, etc. We all know the drill by now, and there’s nothing quite as boring as a cinematic superhero origin story. Yet Chronicle not only manages to make an origin story feel fresh and new (despite not really doing anything all that new), it also manages to make the guiding principle of superheroes - the one that was codified by Uncle Ben, but that always permeated the conceptual fabric of all superheroes - feel dynamic and exciting.
Three high school kids encounter a mysterious crystal beneath the earth. It bestows upon them telekinetic power which, when exercised, grows in strength. Eventually they go from moving Legos to flying thousands of feet in the air. As they document their newfound powers and unbelievable experiences old feelings and grudges fester, and things take a turn for the dark.
None of that is particularly original, at least not for comic book nerds. The comic book industry has gone through sporadic bouts of wondering what would happen if ‘real’ people got super powers; this has been going on so long that one of the original corporate examples, Marvel’s 1980s New Universe, is now positively quaint and retro. But Chronicle makes it all work, and it makes it work with surprising immediacy and emotion.
The secret - and the rest of Hollywood should sit up and take note of this esoteric concept - is that the three leads are likable. Not relatable or identifiable, but simply likable. And they’re likable because they’re rounded, dimensionalized people who react to getting their powers in ways that, while archetypal, feel real and honest. There’s Michael B. Jordan (The Wire’s Wallace) as Steve, the school politician, who sees his powers as a way to strut his stuff. There’s Alex Russell as Matt, a too cool to care smart guy who finds that his powers open him up to a sense of responsibility. And there’s Dane DeHaan as Andrew, an abused outsider who finds that his powers allow him to finally level the high school playing field.
In those one sentence descriptions Steve, Matt and Andrew are almost stereotypes, but on screen they’re living and breathing. Best of all the actors share an incredible and real chemistry; these guys all like each other, which helps us to like them.
And so because we like them - are you taking notes, Hollywood? - we care what happens to them. Chronicle’s pace is perfect in the way it brings us along, getting us involved with the characters, then getting us involved with their burgeoning powers. They have so much fun experimenting that it’s actually possible to forget this all has to lead somewhere with conflict. You’re almost okay watching these three goof around with their TK for 90 minutes.
When the bad stuff does kick in it kicks in with an intensity that will please comic book fans. Buses are hurled, people are thrown through buildings and large scale havoc occurs on the streets of Seattle. But all of that, cool as it is, works not just as spectacle but as character. I watched the third act of Chronicle and I actually gave a shit about what was happening! I didn’t just sit there cooing at the cool visuals! I was engrossed in the narrative in an emotional way.
In 2012, in a ‘superhero’ movie - in a found footage movie! - this is a fucking miracle.
Chronicle actually works largely in spite of itself. The film is found footage, but you get the distinct feeling that director Josh Trank has no interest at all in the gimmick. The film is shot like a mid-budget studio picture, with nice lighting and steady, clean camerawork. As the movie goes on the found footage aspect becomes less and less motivated; at times I was unclear as to why anyone was actually filming some of these scenes. The addition of a secondary camera in some scenes only heightens the feeling of artificiality.
Does this count as a strike against the movie? I would be lying if I said it didn’t bother the hell out of me the whole time; I was constantly aware that what I was seeing looked too good, was too well put together to be found footage. At the same time I hate the found footage aesthetic, so I was thankful for Chronicle’s well-composed shots and excitingly staged (and mostly coherent) action scenes. On the one hand Chronicle utterly fails as a found footage film, but on the other hand it really succeeds as a well-made film film.
I wish the movie had not bothered with the conceit or had, like District 9, used it and dropped it when it was convenient. The scene when the boys first fly is thrilling in the found footage format; the POV camerawork brings you into the clouds with them. Some of the action at the end is also enhanced by the found footage concept, but there’s no reason Trank couldn’t have switched back and forth between straight narrative and POV found footage.
Still the film works. Trank is an exceptionally talented director, and his eye is exquisite. The script by Max Landis is economical, with strong first act set-ups getting satisfyingly paid off in the third act. It’s also remarkably sensitive and even handed. The three leads are terrific, with DeHaan especially excellent portraying the slow meltdown of Andrew. There’s a scene where he uses his powers on a spider that is by turns heartbreaking and scary. I can sum up everything I like about this film by simply saying I regret the path Andrew takes, even though it’s telegraphed from the very beginning. Because I cared.
There’s one other thing that Chronicle does that might surprise Hollywood: it tells a complete story. When Chronicle is over you feel as if you watched something with a beginning, middle and a satisfying end. This isn’t just the prologue to a franchise. This isn’t the opening of a trilogy. This is a complete and completed story. Would I like to see more? Yes, but if there is never another film I won’t feel left hanging.
Take away the barely-there found footage element of this film and you have one of the best superhero movies made yet. Without looking at it through the reductive superhero lens Chronicle is simply a strong, well-told science fiction movie that uses its fantastical ideas to explore grounded human emotions. It’s got vivid action and it has cool concepts, but most of it all it has great characters.