Chronicle: Interesting superhero storytelling (which shouldn’t be found footage)

[Originally published on TheHuntingtonian.com]

What would happen if a group of people suddenly developed super powers? We’ve seen that question asked and answered dozens upon dozens of times over the past few years, in movie adaptations of just about every superhero and ability you can imagine. Here, we’re asked a slightly but noticeably different question: what would happen if you suddenly developed super powers? What if some regular kids from your High School did?

Chronicle, the new film by Josh Trank and Matt Landis, attempts to answer this question as a few teenagers make an incredible discovery while out at a party. Afterward, they begin to develop some strange, X-Menstyle telekinesis, and none of them is quite sure how to handle his newfound abilities. While the superhero origin story may be somewhat exhausted as of late, here’s a movie that puts a new spin on it by setting itself in the real world. The word ‘superhero’ or ‘supervillain’ barely applies here. These aren’t heroes; they’re just teenagers and, like teenagers, the first thing they do with their incredible powers is screw around. They use them to mess with people at the local supermarket, stop baseballs in mid-air and move cars around in a parking lot, videotaping all of it for YouTube. Rarely do we see the protagonists of these kind of movies actually have fun with their powers like we all would.

Much is done to make our characters feel like real teenagers engaging in a real friendship, and it works. Our main character is Andrew Detmer, played by Dane DeHaan. He’s the outcast at school who doesn’t drink, doesn’t go to parties, and eats lunch by himself. If that wasn’t enough, his dad is an abusive drunk, and his mom is slowly dying. While the ‘angst-ridden teenager with family problems’ is certainly a huge trope of the superhero genre, as seen in Spiderman for example, DeHaan really gives the character life in a screen stealing performance. Dramatic scenes which should have in theory made me roll my eyes instead made me really feel for Andrew, and the arc his character goes through during the events of the movie is truly interesting. The three main kids have a great chemistry together, though neither Matt nor Steve, played by Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan respectively, is ever as interesting to watch as Andrew.

Chronicle, as you’re no doubt aware from the marketing, is shot in the ‘found footage’ style, like The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Andrew originally presses record to get his father’s abuse on tape, and he never really stops. Perhaps having a camera between him and reality helps him to cope. The style is used well enough here, though it is admittedly becoming a little tiring in general. The idea is that by showing the movie through ‘real’ footage, the events and characters feel more real. That can indeed be very effective, as seen in a first person flying sequence in Chronicle which is truly awe inspiring and exhilarating. The trade off, however, is countless scenes that exist simply to justify the camera’s existence. Characters say things like ‘we have to document this’ and ‘did you get that on tape?’

Chronicle does attempt to defy some of the tropes of this gimmick though, with Andrew using his telekinesis to float his camera in mid-air, creating a shot we might see in a movie where the camera does not have to be justified. There’s a lot of cutting to other people’s footage as well, unlike a movie like Cloverfield which is all from one perspective. This makes sense; after all, with the advent of smart phones, most of us have video cameras in our pocket all the time. There’s also a YouTube blogger character, conveniently carrying around a nice HD camera, who seems to have been invented merely to add another perspective. All these gimmicks don’t quite get in the way of Chronicle’s story, but I’m not sure they added a whole lot either. The first person perspective does give us some incredible shots here and there, but at the same time, when so many tricks are executed to get around the found footage style, what’s the point of using it in the first place?

There are a lot of questions posed to us in Chronicle, like ‘how do human beings handle power’ and ‘what makes a villain?’ The characters, including the antagonist, are morally complex enough for the film to be really interesting to think about and debate long after it’s over. But it’s also simply a lot of fun to watch as pure superpower wish fulfillment with some surprisingly dark undertones. The found footage style can be somewhat distracting, and it may have worked better as a traditionally shot film, but overall Chronicle is a worthy welcome into the admittedly bloated lineup of superhero films, and a surprising beginning of the year treat.

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