Three high school students make an incredible discovery, leading to their developing uncanny powers beyond their understanding. As they learn to control their abilities and use them to their advantage, their lives start to spin out of control, and their darker sides begin to take over. — (C) Official Site
Max Landis (screenplay), Max Landis (story)
When you hear that director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis (son of John) are out to reinvent the superhero origin story via Chronicle, their found footage sci-fi film effort, all kinds of warranted warning flags go up. After all, this is a genre that can’t decide between making one anxious (via the whole ‘you are there’ narrative) or nauseous (thanks to all the shaky camera antics). Worse still, there’s the nagging “why are you filming everything?” element that never seems to be addressed. Finally, many of these movies avoid big, lavish special effects in order to maintain a level of lo-fi “realism.” Thankfully, Trank and Landis are prepared to address these concerns and then some. The result is one of the best uses of the filmmaking format since a trio of documentarians entered the Burkittsville Woods, looking for a certain witch.
Confirmed class outsider Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) has just bought himself a new video camera. Why? Well, his mother is dying and his drunken dad likes to take out his frustrations on the boy’s face. Apparently, our lead needs something to record the abuse. Picked on at school, his only friend seems to be his cautious cousin Matt (Alex Russell). One night, at a party, they catch up with school sports icon Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) and together, they discover a mysterious cave containing a bizarre alien artifact. A few weeks later, they each have become ‘empowered’ with certain abilities — telekinesis, flight — and are enjoying their newfound superhero skills. Then Andrew’s rage at the world grows out of control and soon battle lines are drawn between the trio.
Chronicle is terrific. It argues for the effectiveness of the found footage gimmick while giving us the kind of comic book kick few films in the genre can even pretend to deliver. A lot like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable in both tone and approach, it’s as if Trank and Landis found a way to merge The Breakfast Club with the typical “birth of a hero/villain” plot to show what would really happen should adolescents, minds confused and hormones raging, become capable of almost anything. We get the fun of discovering the limits inherent in one’s new abilities while never once going wholly overboard into raunchiness or ridiculousness. These guys don’t try to destroy society or advance some personal perversion. Instead, they use their new gifts as a means of empowerment — and in the case of Andrew, escape.
Indeed, this is Andrew’s movie. He is the reason we get the camera footage, the reason the footage continues in a new and novel way (you have to love how Trank and Landis solve the inherent ‘constant camera’ complaint) and the organic way his path goes from halting to hurt to harmful. Like a flawless four frame epic, Andrew appears destined to be the damaged god who gives way to a supervillain, and who better to be his adversary than his reluctant champion cousin. All throughout Chronicle, we watch as things build to a head between the trio. Even better, the ending delivers the kind of rock ‘em, sock ‘em payoff the premise promises. Few films of this type even come close (we’re looking at you, The Devil Inside).
But this is more than just a stunt well done. Chronicle will resonate with anyone who felt/feels high school is nothing more than a melting pot of socially mandated misery, where the populars pick on the nerds because…well, because it’s somehow an acceptable part of the whole “growing up” ideal. In this case, however, Andrew and his friends learn that a little cosmic comeuppance can make homeroom a bit easier to handle — until the pain becomes real. As entertaining as it is inventive, Chronicle is a minor masterwork.