We’re coming off a decade-plus of a widely collaborative and wildly successful “superhero movie” exploration, which has led to not just an impressive quantity of genre-specific titles, but a remarkable variety of stories and treatments. Which is all just a nice way of saying that the superhero flick has been done to death. Don’t get me wrong, some of the most exciting movie events of all time have been for superhero movies, and more than that, a keystone of the Visual Effects Renaissance has been movies about people with astonishing, life-altering, brightly-colored powers. But as the market goes, so goes Hollywood, and the marketability of comic book stories is in decline. Fortunately, nobody bothered to mention this to newcomer Josh Trank, who has somehow, someway, created a comic book movie that satisfies the craving while remaining (gasp!) wholly original.
In Chronicle, a young man named Andrew (Dane DeHaan) turns on a camera and begins to document his life, mostly with the intention of protecting himself from his drunk and abusive father (Michael Kelly), maybe even hoping to catch some final, special moments with his dying mother (Bo Petersen). The camera is a problem for Alex’s cousin Matt (Alex Russell), but becomes useful when Matt and his buddy Steve (Michael B. Jordan) discover something underground, something bizarre and supernatural, something worth documenting. The something changes the three boys, giving them telekinetic powers and, in the process, providing Andrew with his first real friends. Together they begin to explore these abilities, growing them and improving them, until, as will happen with an excess of power, resentment and fear encroach.
The most important element of Chronicle is the use of “found footage,” i.e. letting only footage shot by the characters tell the story. Similar to Cloverfield, or The Blair Witch Project before that, Chronicle is preoccupied with the location of its camera, reminding you often that everything here is ACTUALLY HAPPENING. This results in some awkward effects moments, but nothing that isn’t more or less lost in the jumbles of action the camera often has trouble keeping in focus. Ultimately the payoff of this style choice is huge, yielding dividends to both the film and its director. Within the film, the shaky, mobile footage lends an inevitable realism, but more than that it bridges the gap between the real, true, actual world and the aggrandized world of the comic, where men leaping buildings in a single bound is old news. In one particularly great moment, Matt fights his way through a crowd of gawkers at the bottom of a burning building (with a camera helmed by his girlfriend following closely behind), and, seeing a man falling from the building, suddenly takes off into the air, snatching the man and returning him safely to the ground. Thanks to seeing it over and over and over again, audiences have become desensitized to the genuine shock and awe of what it would be like to see this in real life, and Trank’s ability to pull it off without the slightest sense of puerility is a testament to his maturity as a director.
Unfortunately, Chronicle has two fairly evident stains, one being the inconsistent performances from the three leads. To be clear, all three are talented actors, and for the most part are convincing as, y’know, “real” real kids. But there are still plenty of moments that don’t feel genuine, and this has much to do with the film’s extra-real reality as it does with the fact that screenwriter Max Landis is, despite it being a terrible idea, bound and determined to make these characters fit into high school stereotypes. Which brings us to the second, more apparent issue: the screenplay by Landis. Now, the mere contrivance of this story says something about Landis’ and Trank’s ability to create, but going deeper into this screenplay reveals the sort of messiness one can expect from a younger, untested writer. Pushing aside the awkward dialogue and even awkwarder relationships, Landis simply spends too much time developing. His devotion to conveying Andrew’s situation results in an exhausting torrent of bullying, in a variety of shapes and sizes, which in turn results in an even more exhausting torrent of self-pity. The harassment is certainly vital to the future of the character, but the barrage of reminders that “Andrew is different,” and “Andrew is persecuted,” gets old about five minutes into Act Two. Look at it this way: Magneto, for all his cynical rantings and sardonic philosophies, never spent half as much time feeling sorry for himself as this kid does, and Magneto survived the holocaust.
All in all though, Chronicle is an impressive first film. Apart from offering the sort of fun that has felt absent in recent superhero titles, it shows a director capable of making really strong choices. With its success, Chronicle should push Trank and Landis towards more work, and while Josh Trank seems prepared to excite with a sophomore effort, the real question mark is Landis. While he clearly understands story beats, and is capable of creating something new and different, his deficiencies in dialogue and characterization could set him up for a loss next time around. Only time will tell.