A sort of mash-up of Blair Witch style cinematography, Jackass antics, Marvel superpowers and a plot reminiscent of Carrie, Chronicle is certainly one of the fresher ideas to grace the big screen recently. And yet it has tiptoed quietly into the limelight, living in the shadow of a host of more hotly anticipated big budget superhero movies coming this summer. In this way, the film imitates the growing telekinesis of its characters. At first, it only really gave teddy bears and cricket balls the ability to float, then it decided to lay entire cities to waste, with everyone thinking; where on earth did this film come from?
Josh Trank directs his feature debut here, laying the groundwork for a promising future career, whilst Max Landis, son of John Landis, pens the screenplay. Dane DeHaan plays Andrew Detmar, a loner and social outcast living with his ill mother and an abusive father. His only friend is his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell). Matt is friends with Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) someone who is everything Andrew is not. By accident, the three of them, straying from a party in an abandoned barn of all places, discover a mysterious hole in the ground in the woods, containing some unidentified glowing orb that gifts them with the powers of telekinesis. Gifted with the ability to move anything and even to fly, they discover that the only side effect is a nose bleed that works in similar fashion to the bat signal or spider sense, alerting each of the three protagonists to the actions of the others.
Trank, with the helpful telekinesis plot device, has managed to avoid the limitations of the handheld camera genre. At the beginning of the film, Andrew begins to obsessively film his entire life as a means of distancing himself from the bullying he faces at school, the abuse of his father and the illness that is slowly killing his mother. When he gains his telekinetic abilities, this obsession continues, allowing for many eerie shots of Andrew allowing the camera to float above his bed. Andrew is by far the most interesting character in the whole film, being both tortured and gifted. He is a reminder that despite gaining supernatural powers and the benefits that they bring, the problems of life do not simply float away like the objects he controls.
Steve is also a well written character, being the antithesis of Andrew. He is popular. He is ambitious. He is in line for school president with a desire to go into politics. He is funny and friendly as well as good natured and this blinds him, really, to the pain that Andrew has suffered all of his life. Really, Matt’s character is the bridge between the two of them, being Andrew’s cousin and only real friend. And yet, the character of Matt is where the film fails for me. It has been proven countless times that the best kinds of rivalries are that of opposites. Take the Batman and Joker, for example. Yet, in Chronicle, Trank and Landis have decided to make Matt the main obstacle for Andrew’s slow rise to villain and ‘Apex predator’ as he calls himself. Would it have not made more sense to use the character with opposing ideals as the main thing barring Andrew from his goals? Instead, when the climax comes, we are left with an amazing anti-hero battling a weak character. Perhaps Trank and Landis, in doing this, were trying to avoid that usual superhero cliché and, I suppose, Matt does have enough familial ties to Andrew to still make the final conflict gripping, which it certainly is.
The plot breathes realism into the superhero genre. It is the one time during a superhero film where this reviewer really felt this is what would happen should anyone suddenly gain superpowers without rules or discipline or any obstacles to stand in their way. This has something to do with the documentary style visuals and the main chunk of the plot which is, essentially, the three characters fooling around, Jackass style, pulling pranks on people with their new found abilities.
A lot of online criticism of the film suggests that the use of the handheld camera technique has limited its potential but I disagree. Not only does it intensify the final battle scenes and add that said level of realism, but it forms the backbone of Andrew’s character, his obsession with recording the events of his tragic life. By doing this, Trank has utilises the handheld technique not only for visual thrills but for character development. Never before, really, in any handheld camera film has a writer provided more justification for the use of this technique in this reviewer’s opinion. Also, its use has encouraged Landis to be more minimalist in terms of visual thrills; it focuses down on the characters rather than their abilities so that, when we do see their powers, it is visually arresting. Having said that, the technique becomes particularly forced when it is used for one particular sub plot involving Matt’s love interest Casey, one assumes, to try and add more depth to Matt’s character. She also has a camera obsession, coincidentally, as she even films everyone who comes to her front door. But this is just nitpicking.
In its entirety, Chronicle is an enjoyable entry into the superhero canon and, interestingly, one of the few handheld camera films that hasn’t left this reviewer with an intense headache. Maybe this is because the use of the camera is more controlled unlike, say, in Cloverfield where it is always in the midst of explosions, screams and running. In comparison, Chronicle’s use of the camera is smooth, especially during the flying sequences that really leave the viewer breathless and exhilarated. If you haven’t heard of it, go see it, you will not regret it and you will most probably leave the cinema wishing you could fly too, albeit as far away from jet engines as physically possible.