Neurotic Telekinetic Epic
One of the themes which I've touched on quite often over the past year and a bit has been the rise of the low-budget genre movie with respectable special effects: things like Skyline, Monsters, Apollo 18 and so on. The bar for this sort of thing, and much else besides, is considerably raised by Josh Trank's Chronicle, a fantasy-superhero fusion of considerable quality.
Dane DeHaan plays Andrew, a Seattle teenager with problems: his mother is terminally ill, his father is a violent alcoholic and he is socially very awkward. He has started videotaping everything he does, and the film suggests that even this is a method of distancing himself from the vicissitudes of real life – whatever the reason, his tapes comprise the majority of the film. His only real friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a mildly annoying guy whose intellectual posturing is somewhat undermined by his fondness for singing along with Jessie J songs on the radio.
All this is only setting the scene, of course: the lives of Andrew and Matt take a different direction when, after a party, they and a much more popular student, Steve (Michael B Jordan) encounter a Big Glowing Thingy. This plot device, which the film gets on and off-screen with commendable speed and lack of fuss, grants all three of them a degree of telepathy but much more noticeable telekinetic powers.
Initially confining themselves to taking a hands-free approach to Lego, they find their powers increasing. Soon they are able to surround themselves with shields of impenetrable telekinetic force and turn the power on themselves so they can fly. But how much have they really changed? Andrew, the most gifted of the three, still has all his old problems – and now he has an entirely new way of venting his unhappiness...
Chronicle's main gimmick is the 'found footage' nature of the storytelling – although the film makes it fairly clear that several of the cameras involved get trashed, leaving nothing to actually be found at all! This is quite well executed (though there appears to be at least one special FX flub involving a camera pointing at a mirror) and not as intrusive as it might have been – a conceit where the characters use their powers to float the camera around them helps a bit. On the other hand, some elements of the film are wearyingly reminiscent of the most tedious parts of Cloverfield, and I'm not entirely sure the film needs this – unlike Cloverfield, it has a strong story which doesn't need this kind of gimmick to engage an audience.
It's well-played by the leading trio, who have to do most of the work. Ashley Hinshaw plays the love interest of one of them, but really gets very little to do – her character mainly seems to be there to provide someone else to hold a camera, and to satisfy some arcane truism that every film has to have a girl in it. And the script, written by Max Landis (wonder who his dad is?), is also nicely crafted – while it's true that you're never really in any doubt as to how this is all going to unfold, the development of the story is well-paced and plausible.
While Landis's script pays obvious homage to more than one famous Stephen King tale, there's a stronger sense in which Chronicle is a superhero movie, and it captures the coming-to-terms-with-suddenly-being-gifted moments extremely effectively – while the telekinetic rampage through downtown Seattle at the climax of the film is breathtakingly well realised. And I suppose you could argue that the film is an attempt to answer one of the great unasked questions – what happens on the days when Superman's in a bad mood? What does he do when someone pushes in front of him in the supermarket queue? The answer, of course, is nothing – he's an icon of pure goodness, after all. But what would happen if a genuine human being was given the same kind of power, but none of the saintly forbearance?
Superhero stories are, of course, mostly wish-fulfilment power fantasies – it's surely telling that Superman himself happened to be created by two young Jewish men at a time when Hitler was in power in Germany – and Andrew's revenge on his various tormentors seems to be cut from the same sort of cloth, bereft of the gloss it's often given. Great power here does not come with great responsibility, it simply brings great corruption. On this level alone, Chronicle is an effective cautionary tale of the limits of human nature.
Except it doesn't quite work on this level alone. (Here come the spoilers, so, y'know, watch yourselves.) The same abilities which transform Andrew from an inoffensive, rather pitiable geek into a terrifying menace shake Matt from his customary self-obsession and turn him into a hero. So superhuman powers aren't necessarily a bad thing so long as they're granted to the right people. The film is always broadly sympathetic to Andrew – he remains a victim rather than a villain – but it still seems to say that there could never have been a happy ending for him. Some people have the potential to be heroes, but not all of them.
This isn't an indefensible point of view and the film puts it across well. But it is a very common one for this kind of tale, and superhero films in general, and it's one of the things that reveals that, deep down, Chronicle is a very traditional story. Nevertheless, it's an extremely well-told one, and very watchable and entertaining throughout. Pound for pound and minute for minute, this could turn out to be the most interesting and enjoyable movie of its genre all year.