dir: Josh Trank
With great power comes great responsibility, as well as a great opportunity to get back at everyone who ever did us wrong, right?
Chronicle is a pretty keen take on the superhero genre, told through the non-narrative construct of handheld camera / found footage telling us the story. For that to work, it means that the person filming, at least initially, has to have some reason other than what’s about to happen for filming themselves. At least in theory.
That person is Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a pale and isolated jerk in high school, as are all Andrews, really. Has he got a decent reason for being a loner jerk who films himself with a camera? Well, maybe. The first instance we see worthy of immortalisation, which opens the flick, is him filming himself and his bedroom door, because his violent drunken jerk of a father (Michael Kelly) is threatening him through that door.
We also find out that Andrew’s mother is dying, very slowly, so things aren’t going that well for any of them. And at school, naturally, the other teenage scum sense his vulnerability, and bully the heck out of him. He does have, at least, a cousin who’s on friendly terms with him, which makes him seem like the only person in the world who gives a damn. Matt (Alex Russell) seems like a kid too tall and popular to give a damn about a scrawny skeleton like Andrew, but care he does, all the same. Inexplicably.
Perhaps in efforts to decrease his own burden, Matt insists that Andrew come to a rave with him, so he can get out there and alienate a whole new bunch of people. At that rave, which seems oh so 1990s, Matt, Andrew and another student called Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find some strange rock / crystalline thing down a hole which changes them profoundly.
No, it’s not a metaphor for hot guy-on-guy sex. Wait, maybe it is.
No, I’m pretty sure it’s not, at least not directly. The three chaps start manifesting some powers, and also some manner in which they’re linked by their experience down the hole and with their newfound abilities.
This is the joyous part of any of these stories, where everything is fine, where the problems of the past seem to be no longer be relevant thanks to that ‘something’ new, and, no matter what happened before, a new future seems to be on the horizon.
Who wouldn’t be thrilled by being able to sit on top of Seattle’s Space Needle just for kicks, or to be able to crush a car with one’s mind, or to do all sorts of things previously impossible for anyone, let alone teenage jerks?
Whenever a character, halfway through a flick, says something along the lines of, “This is great, this is the best day of my life, this is the happiest I’ve ever been”, you know that virtually the next scene will have everything starting to fall apart.
Various superhero stories, if not all of them, have as their central theme the idea that people, whether heroes, villains, or not, only really become more dramatically what they are already once some magical event transforms them. Good people become ‘better’, finding new ways to do whatever it was they would have done before, only with powers to make them more effective. And selfish, awful people become even worse, using their powers to make real their tendencies in a way that’s a torment for everyone around them.
If Chronicle follows aspects of this thinking, it does so in a fairly organic way. Because of its ‘found footage’ format, we don’t even realise that we’re spending most of our time watching an origin story, except it’s not the origin story of a superhero; it’s the supervillain’s origin we’re watching, with growing horror.
Quite early on, Matt is urging the other two guys that they agree not to use their powers against people, that they don’t use them for gain, after it seems like Andrew has used his power to swat a person who was annoying them. This nearly results in someone’s death, so it seems possible that learning to control their powers, and to not use them promiscuously should be high on the trio’s list of things to do, right before they go to Tibet after graduation.
Are there cheesy aspects to it? Sure. Even if it’s not a particularly well-worn path that it follows to get where it gets, it does have a way of signposting what’s going to happen next. A lot of Matt’s comments, well-delivered, certainly, but eyeroll-inducing all the same, seem a bit advanced for a teenager. Sure, quoting Schopenhauer, or talking about Greek mythology, and Hubris, especially, isn’t out of the realms of possibility for a kid that age, it’s just that it seems a bit arch, a bit pretentious.
Which I’m a big fan of all the same.
Does the handheld camera conceit knobble the flick visually, and the cheapness of some of the effects look distracting. Sure, but that’s also part of what makes the flick work. These alternatives to the ‘mainstream’ logo-brand comic book bullshit don’t always work, but when they do, they work like gangbusters. And this one certainly does, without resorting to the same clichés.
I’m not going to be so foolish as to say it’s in any way a ‘realistic’ take on the genre, because that would just be wishful thinking. The truth is, though, when it comes to the choices that Andrew and Matt make, it feels like they’re making the choices, however good or bad, that their characters would make, rather than having to make the kinds of choices that make a convoluted plot chug along.
Andrew may be our ‘main’ character, but that doesn’t mean our sympathies lie with him. As Matt correctly points out, independent and pre-dating his newfound abilities, Andrew is hostile and abrasive. Sure, he’s got plenty of good reasons for having become so, considering his home environment, but when his place in the school pecking order gets forcibly reversed, and he starts seeing the people around him as less than people, and starts making statements to camera that would make Frederich Nietzsche uncomfortable, it’s only going to be a matter of time, isn’t it? Since shit’s obviously going to hit the superpowered fan eventually, else we’ll choke to death on our own popcorn in protest.
I really liked how it all plays out. It’s not really a flick with broad appeal, I don’t think. Comparatively, it probably had a budget that wouldn’t have covered Robert Downey Junior’s chest waxing on the Iron Man flicks, and it looks it, too. Not a soul hoping for one of those spectacle-filled, substance-free Marvel flicks that have been coming out at a steady clip in recent times is going to give this movie much of a look-in. I think, at the very least, that when these kinds of alternate takes on the genre are done well, they act as more than just another rendering of that same kind of material, even if the themes are the same.
I like to think that it’s a bit of an antidote to all that flashy wish-fulfilment fantasising stuff, and, also, a none-too-sly reminder that the anti-social, maladjusted jerks who sometimes exist as the primary market for these properties would probably be horrible tyrants if we were ever unlucky enough for them to come to power.
And I don’t think geek audiences really want to be told that. They want to think that they’d be noble and heroic and all that bullshit. They don’t want to be told that they’re more likely to be acting like one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.
I couldn't have hoped for it to end a better way. Usually the ending of these things fills me with a rage that I wish I could take out on the rest of the population, like, by flying to the top of the Space Needle, and destroying Seattle in revenge for the death of Kurt Cobain, but this flick completely provoked the opposite emotions entirely. It capped off what I consider to be The Best Superhero Experience I've Had in a Cinema in 2012. Thus far, but since this year is only two months old, it's not saying much. Sure, no-one's going to remember this flick by the end of this year after Chris Nolan's next Batman flick, or Joss Whedon's Avenger's flick, or Spider-Man or probably the fifty other flicks of similar theme and intent. But this will still be the one that meant a lot to me, at least when I was watching it.
8 times Andrews are rarely the lead characters in movies, with the reason being the name just doesn't sound heroic out of 10
"Does the lion feel bad killing the gazelle? Do people feel remorse when they kill a fly?" - sure they can, when they're not supervillains with training wheels - Chronicle