Director : Josh Trank
Screenplay : Max Landis (story by Max Landis & Josh Trank)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer), Ashley Hinshaw (Casey Letter), Bo Petersen (Karen Detmer), Anna Wood (Monica), Rudi Malcolm (Wayne), Luke Tyler (Sean), Crystal-Donna Roberts (Samantha), Adrian Collins (Costly), Grant Powell (Howard), Armand Aucamp (Austin), Nicole Bailey (Cala), Lynita Crofford (Casey’s Mom)
Were I not so exhausted from the overabundance of horror and fantasy films that use the gimmick of having their stories recorded on video firsthand by the characters within the story, I might be more appreciative of some of the clever tricks that debut director Josh Trank pulls in Chronicle, the story of three dissimilar teenagers who develop telekinetic powers after stumbling across some kind of alien object in a cave outside of Seattle. Having devolved from a brilliant conceit in The Blair Witch Project (1999) to something bordering on the mundane after so many Paranormal Activities, the first-person handheld aesthetic now comes laden with the immediate need for justification: Is it really necessary? Does it make the material more interesting? Does it somehow enhance the story? Or is just an inexpensive method of recycling old material with a different look?
Chronicle sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails in answering all of the above, which is what makes it such a mess, albeit a sporadically enjoyable, sometimes close-to-astonishing mess. The first problem with the handheld aesthetic is that it must be narratively warranted. Why, after all, are characters walking around with their cameras turned on all the time? In this case, the initial justification is the need for Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a shy outsider, to record the violent abuses of his alcoholic father, who takes out his frustration with both his disability and his sick wife on Andrew. Andrew starts carrying the camera with him everywhere, including in the car with his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), a smart, popular kid, and in the bleachers during lunch, where he draws the ire of the cheerleaders for being “creepy” in recording them. At a party (to which Andrew naturally brings his camera), Andrew, Matt, and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), the school’s handsome jock-president king, stumble into a hole in the ground that contains some kind of glowing object, after which they develop the ability to control objects with their minds. The camera therefore becomes the recording witness of their supernatural development, putting down for historical posterity their experiments with moving baseballs, Legos, and eventually themselves.
As the story progresses, Trank must enlarge the film’s perspective, so he and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John Landis) draw in another camera-happy character, a pretty blogger named Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) on whom Matt has had a long-time crush, as well as various security and surveillance cameras around Seattle. Sometimes this works wonderfully, such as a botched robbery at a convenience store that is captured in eerily silent, grainy black-and-white by the outside security camera, while at other times it is just plain awkward, such as when Matt knocks on Ashley’s door and she opens with her camera already set up on a tripod to capture the encounter in its entirety. We are also invited to forgive such unlikely occurrences as characters being able to hold onto the camera when flying through the air and tumbling thousands of feet after nearly being hit by a jet airliner.
Aesthetics aside, Chronicle is most interesting in the way it uses the tropes of the high school melodrama to deepen what is essentially a comic book origin story gone bad. Each of the three main characters is decidedly different in both temperament and experience, which affects how they respond to and ultimately use their newfound powers. Steve, who has always been good-looking, athletic, and popular, takes to his abilities with a kind of glee that suggests that, in his mind, they are entirely deserved, another wildly beneficial addition to his repertoire. Matt, being the most intellectually minded of the trio (he is constantly citing philosophy, asking at one of the film’s most crucial moments if Andrew has ever read Plato’s allegory of the cave), is more aware of the ramifications and tries to institute a set of rules to govern the use of their new powers. Andrew, however, resists such constraints, not so much out of willful impertinence, but rather because, having been pushed around and ignored all of his life, he is a storehouse of pent-up rage. DeHaan, who looks a bit like Leonardo DiCaprio, has a boyish face that scrunches up when he’s angry and makes him look like an apoplectic child.
Because Andrew is the one with the camera most of the time and the only one whose home life we witness, he is the most sympathetic of the three main characters even though he is also the most dangerous. His unthinking use of his telekinesis to punish a jerk for tail-gaiting them is the first clue that his inability to control his anger may be their downfall, which is staged in spectacular fashion in and around downtown Seattle as he and Matt battle it out under the hot lights of news and police helicopters. Andrew becomes convinced that he is an invincible apex predator, and the scenes work only because we recognize his violence as fundamentally masochistic, rather than sadistic. After being temporarily inducted into the popular crowd after using his abilities to wow the school at a talent show, Andrew’s subsequent sexual humiliation at a party is the last straw; he breaks psychologically and spiritually, thus his powers become the only means he has to lash out at both others and himself. The imagery of him hanging in the air over Seattle, bloody and bandaged like an escaped mental patient, gives the film’s climactic battle (which is willfully reminiscent of the aerial super-powered smackdown in Superman II) an edge of sadness that goes a long way toward redeeming some of the film’s sillier conceits. Yet, even when the film is working in this manner, it’s hard not to wonder how the in-story videorecording adds to the effect in any appreciable way outside of either following a trend or covering over its influences.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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