DEBUT FEATURES: Chronicle (2012)

Chronicle (USA, 2012)
Directed by Josh Trank
Starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly

Chronicle comes to our screens during a veritable glut of two genres: comic book superhero films and found footage horror movies. Considering how widespread and popular both genres have become, our first instinct would be to dismiss the film as just another example of either story, confirming Hollywood's current passions for the easily marketable and the cheap to make. But while Chronicle does have its fair share of problems, it manages to rise above at least some of the clichés, delivering a film which is visually impressive and thematically interesting.
Chronicle comes from the pen of Max Landis, the son of director John Landis who already has a burgeoning reputation as a screenwriter. Landis Jr. cut his teeth on the TV series Masters of Horror and Fear Itself, as well as making cameos in his father's later works like The Stupids, Blues Brothers 2000 and Burke and Hare. He is clearly someone with a deep-rooted appreciation for genre movies, coupled with a desire to pick apart clichés and laugh at the absurdity of comic book storylines. This is demonstrated in his short film The Death and Return of Superman, in which he unpicked one of DC Comics' most infamous storylines with the help of big name stars like Elijah Wood and Simon Pegg.
The first aspect of Chronicle that impresses is its brisk storytelling. Superhero films with big money behind them often fall down on this detail, either getting bogged down in the origin story of their character or being too concerned with whizz-bang action to tell a story in the first place. Within 15 minutes of Chronicle it becomes clearly that neither Landis nor first-time director Josh Trank are suffering any fools. The editing is ruthless and the plot zips along at a rewarding pace. The character developments are not hurried per se: they are simply handled with so little padding that it is something of a pleasant surprise.
The second aspect which impresses is how good the film looks. Even in this age of digital film-making, where cameras and equipment are relatively cheap, it's not that easy to achieve something slick and professional on a budget of $15m. The film was shot entirely in Cape Town and Vancouver, and yet you would swear you were looking at the same sets that featured in The Amazing Spider-Man - a film that cost 20 times as much. While this isn't a film that revels in period details or pop culture references, it looks and feels like a big-budget blockbuster will all the fat trimmed off.
It's not just the set-dressing that impresses, however. The special effects in Chronicle are prominent and almost entirely CGI, but they are used constructively to polish the characters' actions and as for the most part well-integrated. Some of the later scenes involving the destruction of the city are rather too similar to those in Cloverfield, but the film is every bit as fun and successful in depicting desperation and panic. Even when the characters' stunts become outlandish and drift well into comic book territory, we care about them to such an extent that even these extraordinary stunts feel physical, sometimes even painful.
The only downside to these impressive visuals is that they conspire to undermine the found footage look that Trank is going for. Chronicle is unusual in that the found footage motifs (shaky camera, sporadic editing, unusual angles etc.) were largely added in post-production, rather than being an integral part of the original concept. For the most part the unusual angles, caused by the characters' telekinesis, would have worked fine on its own without all the sudden jump cuts. Even with the high quality of Andrew's camera, there are certain sections which look too good to work in the found footage style, and as the film goes on the style is invoked so little that they may as well have abandoned it.
But even if we dismiss Trank's decision is a gimmick, designed to get the film a wider audience, Chronicle has a lot more to it than the vast majority of gimmicky found footage films. The film uses its unusual and impressive visuals as a jumping-on point for examining old superhero stories in a new light. In other words, it manages to embed itself in the sci-fi and comic book genres, tackling stories that have been handled many times before, while always appearing modern and somewhat adventurous in its approach.
For fans of science fiction and comics, it's fairly easy to see where Chronicle gets its inspiration. The setup is both an old-fashioned origin story (gaining powers from an unexplained, extra-terrestrial source) and a classic sci-fi thought experiment: how would we react to having superpowers, and what would the consequences be? Much like Superman's voyage from Krypton or the spider that bites Peter Parker, we can explain or speculate on the source of power as much or as little as we like. What matters are the changes that occur from being exposed to this power, and while it's hardly Superman: The Movie or Batman Begins, Chronicle is one of the better films in recent times to tackle this.
Once the story picks up steam, other references to classic works become apparent. The arc of the three main characters begins as an early Spider-Man story but then takes on prominent characteristics of X-Men: our protagonists are to some degree lonely, alienated outcasts, who struggle to control their powers in light of their rapid emotional development. Certainly the final battle between Matt and Andrew is akin to a showdown between Xavier and Magneto: the former, who is powerful but benevolent, seeks to use said power for good, while the latter and arguably more powerful wants to take revenge and obliterate humanity.
Trank and Landis also cited Akira, Carrie and The Fury as influences, with the latter two being especially prominent. Both films have teenage protagonists and use blood as a symbol of power; Gillian causes others to bleed when they touch her, while Carrie's telekinesis manifests shortly after her first period and reaches its peak during the pig-blood sequence. In changing the blood-letting to a nosebleed, Chronicle takes something of primal or sexual significance and reshapes it for male protagonists, simultaneously reducing it to social embarrassment and making it an eerie harbinger for great destruction.
Even if Chronicle's main ideas aren't particularly ground-breaking, they are executed for the most part in a thrilling and entertaining way. In contrast to the havoc of the third act and the big special effects finale, the scenes of them exploring their powers and training themselves are often either funny or charming. The sequence at the talent show is very funny and adeptly staged, with Trank wringing the most he can out of simple camera angles and good effects.
There are, however, three big niggles which ultimately prevent the film from being great. Firstly, the characters aren't massively likeable to begin with: Andrew is creepy, Matt is quite bland and Steve can be annoying. The film moves quickly enough for us to stay with the action, or at least give Trank the benefit of the doubt, but there isn't enough reason for them to act quite so obnoxiously, often pandering to cliché as they do so.
The second problem, related to this, is the frat-boy feel to much of the first and second acts. It can sometimes seem that you cannot have a party with young people in an American film unless there are obscene amounts of alcohol and sexually willing women involved. The Animal House feel does kind of make sense in the scenes where the boys are discovering their powers; considering their age and background, it is logical that they would push each other through a series of stupid dares. But the party scenes are so obnoxious and generic that they tread perilously close to Project X.
The third and final problem with Chronicle is that it is not quite as clever as it thinks it is. This can be excused or at least mitigated by the relative youth of the writer and director, both of whom are talented and have the capacity to mature and develop. But none of the philosophical ideas raised in the film (such as Nietzsche's concept of the ubermensch) are developed to a satisfying extent, and it's not enough just to laugh them off as if the characters didn't mean it. Put simply, there is a big difference between invoking something to sound cool and developing it to be smart.
Chronicle is an intriguing and impressive first effort from Trank and Landis which suggests that both have a bright future ahead of them. While its ideas are not especially original, and it isn't as seamless or clever as it likes to think, it is technically impressive and feels refreshing in an increasingly homogenous mainstream. As Trank and Landis both develop, this may come to be seen as a work more of promise than of outright performance, but for those impatient for a fresh look at origin stories, it will do very nicely for now.