Let’s say this right off the bat, if you haven’t already seen Chronicle you should stop reading this now. You have probably seen the film’s excellent and intriguing trailer – that’s basically enough information. Just look at the star rating, take my word for it, and go and rent or buy, and then watch, the movie. And I’m not saying this because there is some big Shyamalan style twist or anything. I'm saying it just because I know you’re gonna love it. Come back and argue with me after.
Okay, so on to the review. Chronicle is the latest example of a film in a style that it's fashionable to hate. No, not 3D, the other one. FOUND FOOTAGE! In genre terms, this is a superhero origin story using the conceit that the footage you are watching is actually shot by the protagonists. The found-footage style has become much loathed, because it has become an easy template for filmmakers of limited ideas and talents to make cheap genre movies – usually horror. Another criticism of the style is that it precludes the individual vision of a director by enforcing an unartistic and restricted selection of shots and compositions and limiting creative choices in the edit suite. This argument has some merit, but then a film like Chronicle comes along and blows all that out of the water.
The film opens with Andrew Detmer (DeHaan) in his bedroom, beginning a video diary with an old camera he has obtained. Andrew’s home life is bleak – his father is a bitter drunk and his mother seriously ill. School offers little respite, its corridors filled with bullies and girls who won’t look at him twice. The only person he has any connection with is his cool philosopher-quoting cousin Matt (Russell). But even Matt finds him a touch needy and annoying, especially with his new obsession of filming the minutiae of his life.
In an effort to get Andrew to come out of his shell Matt invites him to a local rave, but ditches him on arrival. The socially awkward teenager ends up retreating to the car park. He doesn’t know is his life is about to change forever. The most popular boy at school (star athlete, class president, etc) Steve finds Andrew in the parking lot, and tells him he needs his camera because he and Matt have found something “really cool” in the woods. This turns out to be a mysterious hole-in-the-ground with a big glowing alien muguffin-doohickey machine inside. The mysterious artefact gives the three boys telekinetic powers. Being teenagers, they practice and develop these powers by essentially punking people and giggling about it behind the bushes. Matt and Steve have no idea about how difficult Andrew’s life is at home, and the effects it will have when combined with his increasingly powerful new superpowers.
Chronicle is not a hugely original story – this is ground well covered by comic books, and on TV by Heroes and Misfits. However, the combination of first-time director Trank’s imaginative use of the found-footage format, Max “son of John” Landis’s very witty screenplay, and excellent performances from the three lead actors come together to create a film that not only feels fresh and exciting, but that sets a high bar other superhero epics – on a fraction of their budget.
These aren’t the heirs to fortunes, the sole surviving members of an alien race, or top gun pilots. They have to go to school, and deal with the same shit we all do. Although it has a very compact running time the film spends a significant amount of it on building these characters and spending time with them as they explore and develop their powers. When the inevitable turn to darkness and conflict comes, the reasons for this are so well established and relatable that the story becomes a tragic one. This is a film that is on the side of the outcast and the misfit, where so many films see them as a subject for demonisation. If there is any area for criticism, it is perhaps that the film’s female characters are rather thin – in particular Hinshaw as Matt’s ex-girlfriend, who also films events for her own blog and sometimes feels like a convenient plot contrivance rather than a legitimate character.
Despite a relatively small budget, Chronicle features often quite astonishing special effects. To misquote another superhero film of a few decades back, “you will believe a teenager can fly”. The film's climatic scenes have as much bang for your buck as a Michael Bay film, but are infinitely more effective because you care about the protagonists. The expansive scale and detailed character arcs make this closer in comic book terms to Alan Moore than Stan Lee. In the lead role, DeHaan is a star in waiting, there is a touch of DeCaprio in The Basketball Diaries about the actor’s performance. Russell and Jordan play the charming good guys with charisma, but the film belongs to DeHaan. For first time feature director Trank this is likely to be as much as a career launchpad as Cloverfield was for Matt Reeves, or District 9 for Neill Blomkamp. As for Landis, I'm willing to bet that he doesn’t have to be described in terms of his paternal ties for much longer.
If you only see one superhero film this year ... make sure it’s Chronicle.
EXTRAS ★★ There are two versions of the film – the theatrical version and an extended version, which runs an extra five minutes. The bonus features consists of: a deleted scene of Matt and Casey in the kitchen (1:10); pre-viz (animated storyboards) for two key scenes (7:48); camera tests (3:58); information about the Chronicle soundtrack; the theatrical trailer.