Back before 2015’s abortive version of Fantastic Four turned Josh Trank into a blockbuster cautionary tale, there was Chronicle, an absolutely stonking sci-fi flick that turned superhero conventions on their heads (possibly by using telekinesis) and breathed aggressive, new life into that most marmite of sub-genres: the found footage movie.
Released in a year that saw the superhero genre not only finish the Dark Knight Trilogy and reboot a brand new Parker Parker, but reach insane new heights as The Avengers went about breaking box office records like they broke the Chitauri, Chronicle proved to be a refreshing change of pace as it’s stripped back story gave us an almost documentary-style look at what it means when irresponsible teens obtain the powers of gods and what happens when the bullied becomes an alpha predator.
Andrew Detmer is your typical brand of trodden-on, high school sad sack. He’s painfully awkward, introverted and thus is bullied mercilessly both at school and at home by a drunk, abusive father while his mother writhes herself into an early grave thanks to a losing battle with cancer. In an effort to get through the days, he buys himself a secondhand camcorder to document his miserable existence and try and make sense of the world in general by filming every little thing he can. He has one friend in the form of his cousin, Matt, but even he, while well meaning, can’t really help Andrew with his sizable social problems. Still, Matt means well and inbetween trying to catch the eye of pretty vlogger Casey, he tries to integrate Andrew into things by inviting him to a party and while there, popular kid Steve Montgomery explores him to use his camera to help Matt and he document a suspicious cave that puts out an ominous glow due to the weird-ass meteorite located within. After an alarming side effect of nose bleeds and unconsciousness, the three wake to discover there have the power to move things with their minds and set about trying to hone these funky abilities mostly by pulling silly little practical jokes like a X-Men version of Jackass, but as they do so, the three bond in ways that Andrew has ever experienced before.
Of course after a period where, through Steve, Andrew actually obtains popularity, ultimately reality reasserts itself when he embarrasses himself during a social gathering and soon his darker impulses begin to intrude as he separates himself from his friends and gathers his strength. It’s obvious that sooner or later, the sheer weight of his stressful life will cause him to do something he can’t come back from and it be down to his friends to quell that raging storm of telekinetic fury.
While maybe not quite aging as well as say, Cloverfield, when it comes to transporting a huge blockbuster plot to the jiggling cinematography of the found footage genre, there still is an incredible amount to love about Chronicle as it approaches its subject matter from new, exciting angles that give the now-passe sight of being punched through a building interesting new wrinkles. If Cloverfield was about 9/11 seen through the lens of a Kaiju movie, then it could be argued thst Chronicle is a superpowered examination of those marginalised kids who snap and go shoot up a school as Max Landis’ script has the big twist have us realise that we’re actually witness a super villain origin story – and a worryingly recognizable one it is too.
Long before that weirdly long run of being unfairly misused in movies like Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, Dane DeHaan wows as the emotionally brittle Andrew who’s gradual descent into world-hating super villainy is as legitimately scary as it is utterly relatable as he allows his relatively embarrassing speed bump on the road to acceptance to be blown all out of proportion as the succumbs to the rage his life has given him. Essentially starting off the film as a rather humourless, put upon Peter Parker, he ends it as a maniacal version of Tetsuo from Akira, wounded, trailing bandages and taking out his rage and grief on Seattle like a wild animal with super-freaky brain powers. Similarly carving his name on a “one to watch” list with chutzpah to spare is an early role from Michael B. Jordan who brings a kindly understanding to his grandstanding popular kid, Steve, but unfortunately, Alex Russell as Matt struggles a little to keep up in the more traditional hero role although he’s square jawed and earnest enough for him to not be anything close to a liability.
However, the real star here is how the filmmakers bend and subvert both the nature of movies with superpowers and ones with found footage to play to the primal strengths of both. Sick of the camera queasily lurching all over the place like a sailor in a storm? No problem, they’ll have the characters move the cameras themselves with their minds to create smooth movements that you can actually follow. Think that these kinds of movies can often become overlong and bloated? They’ve got you covered with a script so lean it has less fat on it than a bleached cow skull in the desert.
The way the movie approaches the accidental obtaining of paranormal abilities is paced brilliantly, with our heroes instantly veering away from power and responsibility in order to bean each other with telekinetically boasted baseball pitches or performing silly practical jokes on the public while giggling like idiots – think if Johnny Knoxville was cast as Magneto – but slowly the trio’s experiments start to encompass much more, such as the ability to throw up a protective shield or even flight. It’s important that Trank and Landis takes so much time setting exactly what these guys can and can’t do so that when the plot starts going into more traditional arenas like good vs. evil smackdown that cause insurance rates to skyrocket, the movie doesn’t have to take time out of its Cloverfield-esque images of destruction to explain what is going on.
Still, the found footage curse of trying to work out what’s happening in the darker and more frenetic shots still strikes here and there and DeHaane’s deranged final act of virtually incoherent rage is earned and is most definitely intimidating, but it’s a shame that a more lucid version of Andrew isn’t the one that’s ripping Seattle a new hole before he’s taken out a bit too easily – a shot of him absent mindedly crushing a car carries far more menace than him scattering police like bowling pins.
However, none of this means that Chronicle isn’t something to celebrate, even if Josh Trank’s subsequent movie career stalled at launch, and this tale of killer nerds and glowing meteors gets a massive boost from some measured storytelling that gives supes and shakeycams an extra twist we didn’t even know they needed.