Movie Review: CHRONICLE (Spoiler Free)

Chronicle (2012)

Chronicle

20th Century Fox
Directed by Josh Trank
Story by Josh Trank, Max Landis
Starring: Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garrety), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer), Ashley Hinshaw (Casey Letter)

You’ve probably seen Max Landis’ manic deconstruction of The Death and Return of Superman floating around on Facebook and Twitter. A star-studded sendup of 90s comic excess and absurdity, it’s designed to resemble a film student’s shoestring manifesto, replete with bargain basement costumes and a verbose, if breakneck pace. As emcee, the 26-year old screenwriter delights in relating what we all can agree was a fairly convoluted saga and promotional effort. As much joy as he takes in tearing the flimsy premise to shreds, there’s a level of passion for the superhero genre evident in this fifteen-minute screed, rare for this brand of parody. Landis often gets a bit too vitriolic, but there’s no mistaking it. This is a love letter. Landis knows his stuff and seems well-versed in the ups and downs of the never-ending comic book soap opera. That knowledge and intensity serve him well in the feature film he’s actually marketing with that viral video, released theatrically on the very same day.

Enter Chronicle.

Andrew has it pretty rough. His mother is losing her battle with a cruel disease just down the hall. His ex-firefighter dad is collecting disability checks, a broken man in constant need of a punching bag just about Andrew’s size. When we first meet the teenager, he’s scraped together the money to buy a used camcorder. Andrew can’t quite explain his motives, but he’s decided to document as much of his waking life as he can. His cousin Matt–the sage older brother Andrew never had–finds it unusual, but far from par. Andrew’s always been a bit odd. Though his classmates harass the kid for introducing this new quirk into his routine, Andrew remains committed to the practice of recording everything right up until the explosive finale of this supernatural origin story.

Let’s get to the supernatural. Despite Matt’s pleading, Andrew brings his camera to a rave being held in a remote warehouse somewhere in the woody outskirts of Seattle. And may I just say, glow-sticks. Perhaps inevitably, Andrew quickly falls victim to a dancer’s jealous boyfriend. Out in the parking lot to lick his wounds, the guy is wary to follow Steve Montgomery off on an adventure when the would-be class president comes calling. Affable Steve has stumbled on something in the woods. Though he and Matt have camera phones, they know only Andrew’s camera is sufficiently robust to capture the gravity of their discovery. Especially in the dark. The strange object they examine that night, whatever it was, destroys Andrew’s camera. He probably would’ve just cut his losses and scrapped the hobby altogether if the thing in that crater hadn’t also given the three of them super powers.

Where's Wallace? There's Wallace.

The boys get a new camera and pick up right where they left off. Actually, a little bit later. It’s a smart move on the filmmakers’ part that a few second of black serve–representing a few missing days and some major discoveries–as intermission between acts one and two. Let’s just say that by the time Andrew has his new camera, the boys have some new tricks well worth filming. Yes, this is the classic “What would happen if real people got super powers” plot.

Andrew’s new hobby as documentarian provides Chronicle with the now ubiquitous “found footage” aesthetic. The simplest point of comparison is 2008’s Cloverfield, but director Josh Trank has taken cues from other recent films in the category to broaden the scope, if only slightly. All events are captured on a video camera, starting with Andrew’s slightly outdated prosumer device alone. Often, Andrew is simply a disembodied voice behind the camera. Luckily, it gets stolen and pointed back at him often enough to give us a clear picture. Andrew and his friends also encounter a suspiciously high frequency of mirrors. As the film progresses, Matt’s love interest Casey is introduced along with an additional camera. Casey is a video-blogger with her own kit. Whenever she appears, the scene gains a second angle. Further along, Andrew gets good enough with his telekinetic abilities that he can make the camera float behind him. Finally, security cameras (think Paranormal Activity) and handheld recording devices like iPhones and iPads pitch in as things get a little more complicated.

By and large, the found footage motif works and often enhances the story. Later, the filmmakers tend to cheat a little, working hard to find solutions that only serve to keep the aesthetic going. In these moments, the plot must serve the style rather than the other way around. Like the American version of The Office, there’s also a point where the conceit of the ‘documentary’ is abandoned and the motive for this filming becomes unclear. We understand why Andrew is keeping a kind of video diary, but he’s not collaborating with Casey at any point. Why is her footage spliced in? The same for the security camera footage. It’s a petty quibble, to be sure. But given the popularity of this shooting style, it’s worth pointing out that this is one genre example that doesn’t have a solution for everything, where a handful of others actually do.

Luckily, Andrew was already pretty well-adjusted when he developed powers. Wait. Oh. Oh, shit.

It’s probably no surprise that these three kids handle their newfound abilities differently. Things don’t end so well for some of these guys. But the best moments of the film are exhilarating. Where many stories of this type jump almost directly from innocence to corruption, Chronicle offers up some truly thoughtful character arcs. These kids are thrilled about their powers at first, and the home video style of shooting makes for some great comedic moments. “Boys will be boys” as one promotional poster reads. When things take their inevitable turn for the worst, there’s nuance and logic to that spiral. There’s a perfect progression from mischief to mayhem. Though I’m slightly disappointed in the third act, Chronicle serves as an exceptionally good origin story. With a cleaner approach than many licensed superhero films. You’ve seen the Superman gone-wrong story plenty of times, but this might be one of the better ones, especially in terms of character motivation.

Chronicle wasn’t on my radar a week ago. But it will inform my assessment of future superhero origins for some time to come.

3.5 Stars

(Out of 5)

For more of my thoughts on Chronicle, check out the latest episode of Fuzzy Typewriter.

Comments

  1. Woooo. No ifanboy podcast but I’ll settle for a FT podcast.
    For what it’s worth I thought this was a 5 star film. I havent had so much fun at the movies for a long time; I’m actually going to see it again today after just seeing it yesterday.

    • Completely agree. Me and a buddy went and saw it Saturday afternoon. I was excited for it, but not expecting too much, but the movie ended up as exactly what I thought it would be, but moreso. I could have (and almost did) turn right around and walk back in to watch it again.

  2. I was wondering after I saw this if there would be an iFanboy podcast. It was definitely worth seeing and I’d be interested in hearing everyone else’s opinions. Like you Paul, I found the last act somewhat underwhelming, but thought that it was a good time overall.

  3. I loved this movie. Out of every superhero/superpower movie i’ve seen, this one handled it the best. Never before have i ever come out of a movie with such a strong desire and longing for superpoers. those flying scenes alone… whew boy!
    Im conflicted over the camcorder mechanic though. I felt it had far less “shaky cam” than its contemporaries (thanks in part to the plot itself) but at some points it was way too much and it was hard to follow. other times though, it immersed you so well into the action that i really felt it was the best way to handle this sort of material. I don’t know i wouldve enjoyed it as much if it was handled differently. maybe a combination of regular filmmaking and the camcorder mechanic would’ve been the best choice.
    I also felt they handled the character turn really well. His motivations were extremely relatable and i didn’t feel like it came out of nowhere. It couldve used a bit more fleshing out in the tail end, but all in all, i was EXTREMELY satisfied.
    this has become one of my favourite superpower movies of all time.
    ” Later, the filmmakers tend to cheat a little,”
    Agreed. They DEFINITELY did

    • I think if this hadn’t used the ‘found footage’ technique it wouldn’t have worked at all. If this had been shot as a traditional narrative film it would have felt very flat. Those flying scenes are so great because they are first person.

      Also I have to disagree with the character turn. Without giving anything away, I felt it came out of nowhere and was pretty thinly motivated considering what caused and it and how quickly he disregards the safe use of his powers. The pace of the film was great and there was little or no fat, but they could have fleshed that out a little more. The build up is great but then the end comes on way too quickly.

    • I can agree with that. I actually feel that the character turn was working up until the climax. Im sure you know what part i mean, but everything leading up to that point i felt worked. they lost me after the gas station scene

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      That point where the turn gets weird and a little wonky might be during that junkyard scene pictured above. That’s where Andrew gets a little obsessive, introducing the Apex Predator concept. He really starts chewing the scenery at this point, talking fast, raging, getting a bit too manic. I ultimately let it go because he’s a teenager and probably is putting on a performance for the camera and also because we don’t see everything during this period of the story. The filming gets a little more infrequent, so during those times, Andrew is stewing and reaching this breaking point. There’s also an argument to be made about his final turn in the third act. He was comatose. He’s on meds. During that third act, he’s not just broken, he’s drugged.

    • Good point about being broken and drugged, I hadn’t considered that. I agree that the Apex Predator thing is when it got weird. That could have worked but it needed more time to develop.

      One of my other problems is how the ‘kids’ acted. I’m old enough to have shed most of my teenage narcissism but not so old I have forgotten just how self centered I was. I found it a little hard to swallow that three high schools seniors get these powers and only use them as essentially parlor tricks to entertain themselves. I’m pretty sure there would have been some pretty serious discussions early on just how to best use theses powers for their own personal benefit. I found the fact that there was really none of that to be unbelievable. I’m not saying they would rob banks or turn into super villains, but how quickly the all accepted the ‘rules’ was a little hard to swallow.

    • Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

      Well, it’s important that there are three of them and not one kid on his own. One kid might take advantage sooner. But these guys have a system of checks and balances. They also establish that Steve and Matt are stand-up guys. Steve is student council material. And I don’t think it’s just because he’s popular. Matt…Matt’s a very strange character. I talk a bit about it on the podcast, but I don’t quite understand his solo scenes. His whole cool but not cool thing is a complicated subplot. But we do know–probably all too well–he’s a philosophy nut. So he’s thinking all this through. He’s worried about corruption. And I think his influence keeps Andrew and Steve in line to a point. Counter in Steve’s already altruistic nature, and I buy it.

    • Agreed on Matt. It really felt like some scenes which may have fleshed out his character were cut of for time. That scene where he vists the girl he’s interested in, only to act all aloof? it didn’t work without more context

  4. Agree that the last act was weaker than the rest but overall I really enjoyed this film. One of the few really great, non-comic related superhero films. Also the special effects were seamless, which in my opinion is the highest compliment you can give to SFX.

  5. Great review and a great movie. If you can ignore the few footage ‘cheats’ during the film’s climax then you’ll definitely enjoy this movie.

  6. I would have rated it a bit higher than Paul but we are pretty much in agreement.

    I certainly won’t go into detail for fear of spoiling things, but what I will say is this could have easily been horrible, and honestly I was afraid it would be. I was happily surprised to find it to be one of the most realistic and clean origin stories I’ve seen or read. Also, it’s nice to see a film like this that isn’t blatantly setting itself up for a sequel.

    One major bonus for me and others like me, my GF even really enjoyed it, and for someone who isn’t a fanboy, I think that’s a great compliment to the film makers and writers.

    Hopefully there can be more films like this in the future. While I love my superheroes, it’s refreshing to go see a movie with no preconceived ideas about the characters. Even more so, I couldn’t be disappointed with the representation of them either! I think what was also a great thing was I never felt like they were borrowing back stories or plot lines from other books and films.

    My rating: 4/5

  7. i saw this over the weekend at really enjoyed it. I felt it was a lot of fun, and it was an interesting use of the camera(s) to tell the story. I strongly recommend checking this out at some point (if not the theater then Netflix or one of the premium cable channels).

  8. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    To be fair, Landis and Trank aren’t the only filmmakers playing with the found footage idea, and The Office wasn’t the first mockumentary. There are times when the style feels tired, but Chronicle does have a number of novel ideas. They way they handle flight is particularly impressive. I’ll say that i’m probably more impressed with Trank’s filmmaking than his and Landis’ story, but I won’t deny that we’ve seen a lot of this before.

    As you can likely tell, I’m conflicted. I have a lot of qualms with this movie, but at the end of the day I really like it and would be interested to see another installment. Listen to the FT podcast for our speculation on that.

    Complaints, sure. But I think it’s definitely worth seeing. Even if you don’t love it, there’s a lot to think about. Flawed experiments are invaluable.

  9. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    Want to see something really interesting? Here’s director Josh Trank’s lightsaber video. Everybody has a lightsaber video, but this one is very smart in its use of the found footage aesthetic.

    http://youtu.be/kqPiIMJLFP8

    (Warning: Harsh language)

  10. I was a bit let down by the ending, and there were a couple of plot holes, and I found the Casey character 100% unnecessary (and in fact, barely a character at all, just a cipher, an excuse to add another camera to the mix). But overall, I loved this movie. I was grinning ear-to-ear for at least an hour straight while watching it. It was intense, exciting, thoughtful, and well-made. I could hardly ask for more.

  11. One thing of note in this film, as opposed to otger found footage style films, is the extensive effort to humanize the 3 main characters. Though I have enjoyed other films of this style on occasion, this one featured likeable, but human, characters with motivations I understood and empathized with. I liked those boys and I found myself dreading the moment when the conflict would begin. I found the film very rewarding and emotionally mature. I would give it 4 stars.

  12. Paul, thanks for posting another well-written, thoughtful review. I emailed Josh to see if there would be any coverage, and I’, glad you guys gave this film some much deserved attention. I’m also glad you liked it and gave it a generally favorable, enthusiastic review, for which the movie mostly stood on its own merits.

    So, I’m not a big lover or hater of the “found footage” style. I think it’s been done to death, but it can be done well and be very effective. I thought it worked very well in this, and they were able to justify it not being all first person, although that was definitely a factor that contributed to this film’s success. I liked the inclusion of surveilence/phone/news/etc footage. Some parts of this needed the rules to be bent for it to work, and they did it well. I hate the shaky cams, though, so thankfully there was not much of that here, and what there was made sense.

    I thought the character arcs were good and believable. We don’t know how much time has passed between shots, so I don’t think Andrew’s arc was too abrupt. We also don’t know if the powers had any side effects on their mental states or personalities, other than the old “power corrupts” adage. I don’t think this is so far fetched because, sadly, we live in a world when something like Columbine can happen, where kids are bullied or abused to the point that their mental state is compromised and they resort to violence. In this case, I thought his responses were realistic. People sometimes lose their shit, or their temper, which can have tragic results.

    As mentioned, the effects were on-par or better than your typical superhero Hollywood blockbuster that might cost 4x as much (the budget I saw quoted as $15M, amazing it was that good but that cheap). It was #1 at the box office and earned $34M. Not too shabby.

    5/5

  13. I agree with most of the review, and that the third act is weak. Landis didn’t know how to end his story. If you had superpowers like Andrew, and you needed money, would you rob a convenience store? Anyone with half a brain would break into a bank after hours. I thought about foreign audiences when the pharmacist tells Andrew that his mother’s meds are going to cost over $700. Could that happen in America? Yup.

  14. Thank you very much for the review. Sounds like I have a movie to watch this weekend.

  15. I absolutely loved this movie from the bottom of my heart. Not only was Andrew an amazingly well put together hero, it also made a lot of sense as to why he decided to pursue becoming an “Apex Predater”(My favorite line from the movie.)
    A day 1 buy on BlueRay for me.

  16. I thought it was great. It wasn’t perfect, but honestly, I was expecting to hate it or be severely disappointed and I wasn’t. Also, the found footage format really didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would and especially at the end (slight spoiler alert) where it’s cutting between TV cameras and CCTV security cameras and various cellphone cams, I actually found myself really enjoying that angle of entry.

  17. You lost me at “camcorder” and “cloverfield”. I’ll check it out when it comes out on blu-ray if I got 5$ to spend (instead of buying comics) 😉