Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan
Director: Josh Trank
Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
It’s important to go into the sci-fi action drama Chronicle with a few points of reference. Or maybe it isn’t. Perhaps one can simply enjoy the movie without any knowledge of the whole “found footage” genre, but then that begs the question of whether or not the format is even necessary in this particular case. Beginning as a way to hide subpar production values and low budget visual effects, found footage has since devolved into an excuse for filmmakers to jump onto a cinematic bandwagon. Sure, 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, (which cost $60,000 and went on to gross over $248 million worldwide), propelled the genre into the mainstream, but that film was actually predated by 1980’s Hannibal Holocaust, a cult classic that tells the story of a missing documentary crew in the Amazon. What these two movies had in common, which the newer entries lack, is the element of surprise. The idea that someone can shoot a movie in the style of a factual documentary and completely fool the audience wasn’t exactly novel even a decade ago, but there still seemed to be an aura of “is it or isn’t it real” surrounding a movie like The Blair Witch Project that simply cannot be achieved anymore. In recent years, there’s been a rash of found footage movies, from the merely passable Cloverfield, to the interesting though ultimately snooze-inducing Paranormal Activity trilogy, and then finally disposable releases like The Devil Inside and Apollo 18. 2011’s Troll Hunter was the most effective recent effort, a cheeky blend of mythological whimsy and faux-doc that proved there might be some life left in a wheezing genre. With Chronicle, debuting 27-year-old director Josh Trank has pushed the limits of the format, and for better or worse, has given it a bit of a makeover. When it works, like in The Blair Witch Project, the results can be gripping, but can this kind of thing really be effective or surprising anymore?
The answer to that question, at least in the case of Chronicle, is yes and no. The surprising part is that here’s a movie with a $15 million dollar budget, unknown lead actors, and a first-time director that actually has a vision that so many of the big Hollywood blockbusters lack. At the other end of the equation is the strident insistence on staying true to the food footage format by constantly justifying how or why the camera is being used in any given scene. While this does provide some creative advantages (especially given the relatively small budget), it makes one wonder how this story would have played as a more traditionally shot film. Not that one should complain when risks are being taken, but here there is no clear-cut reason why the movie is being presented in this way other than it provides one of the main characters with a way of documenting his tortured high school existence, which includes bullying from classmates and an abusive father.
The plot here is simple, revolving around three Seattle friends that discover a hole in the ground in the woods that contains a strange, glowing crystalline object. As portrayed by Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan, they embody typical high school clichés—the isolated loner, broish party guy, and popular sports jock. That the characters aren’t all that likeable and at times downright annoying is expected in a movie about immature males who unexpectedly gain super powers. The script by Max Landis (son of famous director John Landis) never explicitly explains where these powers come from; whether from alien sources or some breach in the universe, but instead seems more interested in riffing on super hero origin mythologies. It’s a neat twist to give teen characters telekinetic abilities in a world dominated by raging hormones and pubescent awkwardness, and the way in which the three friends slowly learn how to control their powers result in some of the film’s best sequences. Instead of searching for an arch nemesis or wondering about the profound implications of their newfound gifts, they choose to do things that most high school boys would probably do, like lifting up girls’ skirts and messing with people in shopping malls by levitating objects. The characters react in a manner that seems at least partially believable (simultaneously frightened and overjoyed) and as their abilities become stronger, the stakes are raised and the film gets into some fairly dark territory.
Chronicle isn’t substantial, nor does it feature a truly original concept. It’s basically a high school version of Akira with shaky-cam immediacy and a modern commentary on living in a technological age where nearly everyone is being filmed and then thrown onto the Internet. But coming from a young debuting director on a slim budget, it accomplishes what so many genre films treading similar territory such as I Am Number Four, absolutely failed to do, and that is provide an innovative spin on familiar tropes. Yes, the film has flaws, and if one chooses to examine the rules it sets up, it does fall apart somewhat during the third act. The inclusion of a female love interest whose filming events for her online blog seems to exist only to provide the filmmakers with multiple angles to cut to, and as one of the main characters becomes increasingly unhinged due to his escalating powers, the movie loses sight of its aesthetic. This is seen most obviously during an extended fight sequence near the end that features multiple cameras—floating i-phones, security footage, helicopter cams etc—but some of the angles defy logic, and since it’s never explained exactly who is filming these shots, it feels like a little bit of a cheat. Still, this isn’t the type of film that one should really think too hard about. It’s an undeniably impressive first feature for Trank, who will no doubt have Hollywood calling, and though the combination of practical effects and CG is nothing new, it’s pretty seamless given the lo-fi nature of the project. Best of all, Chronicle leaves room for young, creative filmmakers willing to play by their own rules, unencumbered by studio meddling and extravagant marketing budgets. The fact that the movie seems to be catching on both with audiences and critics alike gives one hope that more of these types of projects, found footage or otherwise, will find life in an industry ruled by the mighty dollar.