The Powers of Engagement

Chronicle (2012)     ★★★★

Directed by Josh Trank (20th Century Fox)

Admittedly, the found-footage subgenre has become rather tiresome, almost to the extent that when combined with the equally overused superhero genre, we would find it all too easy to dismiss this rather intriguing concept as something we have seen a million times before. It is perfectly fair to say that Chronicle, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Josh Trank (and who upon the release of this surprise hit, is scheduled to direct at least four big-budget superhero movies), is indeed, far from original, incorporating generic superhero/high school themes, while also borrowing from The X-Files, subpar, psychic-centric action films (Push, Jumper), and the abused adolescent elements of Carrie (or even the Roald Dahl-based Matilda). It is with these expectations that Chronicle comes to surprise you.

The film happens to be admirably-written and directed, featuring compelling characters who are acted believably, and who actually look their age. As if this didn’t allow the movie to already overcome its inherent weaknesses, there is also an underlying subtext as to why the concept of cinematic “found-footage” fascinates us these days, in addition to the execution of uniquely staged action sequences … and with a mere budget of $15 million! Essentially, Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) have rewritten the rules for genre-mashups, despite making one that couldn’t seem more inevitable. In doing so, it remains the most exciting entry of its kind since Cloverfield, or possibly the king of all shaky-camera pictures – The Blair Witch Project.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has it pretty rough. He’s bullied at school, his mother is dying of cancer, his father is an abusive alcoholic, and his cousin, Matt (Alex Russel), has substituted much of their friendship in a quest to become cool. Hence Andrew’s coping mechanism of starting to film his life, and our introduction to his handy camera, that which supposedly captures a majority of the action. It doesn’t take long before Andrew, Matt, and popular, class-president candidate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) end up in a hole in the ground, where a large, crystalline object gives them telekinetic abilities. At first, Andrew films their performance of what any typical, high-school students would enact given the sudden situation – humorous tests of their sudden abilities, and later, elaborate pranks. An unfortunate incident soon occurs, and the teenagers begin to realize that they must not only keep their abilities a resolute secret, but as their powers grow stronger, vow never to use it on living things.

As can be imagined, this doesn’t quite work out. For the first time, Andrew has true friends, but with the stress imposed by his family situation, newfound acceptance fails to hold him together. His popularity at school is briefly boosted, but once again, comes crashing to the ground. It’s been awhile since I have seen a film so carefully display a teenager in turmoil, one who begins to feel that the whole world is against him. We all knew that kid when we were in high school; the one who was relentlessly picked-on. Chronicle gives him superpowers. And in the midst of these astonishing capabilities given to an increasingly disturbed child, all hell is bound to break loose.

Trank and Landis have staged a teenage character study of surprising wisdom and impact, knowingly displaying the relationships that adolescents form, and how they can go so awry. Landis’s dialogue certainly isn’t perfect, and although the young leads give captivating, thoroughly realistic performances (especially given material that floats distinctly above reality), their line-delivery isn’t always convincing. However, one cannot deny that they are very promising talents, fully encapsulating the meat within each of their character arcs, and engaging us with emotion and relatability. We care about these characters and never feel uninvolved, entwined within an intelligent, science-fiction narrative that tells a highly entertaining story. In addition, it surpasses a gimmick that is rarely believable.

Chronicle attempts to convince us that every shot has been taken by some device with video-capturing capabilites, such as the camera that Andrew brings basically everywhere he goes (and when he develops his powers, that which he is able to levitate). Other sources of footage include surveillance cameras, cell phones, etc., the largest diversity of digital gadgetry being used in the film’s climax, when Andrew takes his obsession to an unprecedented level. Yet it is always difficult to believe that Andrew has been able to sneak his camera into specific places and situations, or to a lesser extent, hide the fact that it is rolling. But you gotta give Chronicle props. It attempts something complex with a style that has become dreadfully boring. In fact, it even has something interesting to say about it.

It is never fully clear why Andrew has become determined to visually document his life, although Landis’s theming allows us to reach a few thought-provoking conclusions. When one is behind a lens, the camera becomes a barrier to reality, it becomes both an escape and a new method of viewing the world. Andrew seeks both. He has been living his high school years in near torture, and seeks a barricade to the pain. He also hopes to discover something about life that he has been severely missing. How relevant that when these inhuman powers lead to tragedy, the camera is able to relate a very human story.

Many find escape at the movies, but the best kind of films allow us to apply cinematic language to how we will continue to live our lives.  Maybe this fad of found-footage hoopla has something to do with that. Ever since the narrative, blockbuster-centric period of the late ’70s overcame the American era of art film, movies have struggled to find a balance between meaning and money. The revived found-footage genre, pioneered by Blair Witch in 1999 (and which had been used previously in lesser-known fare, such as 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust), revived that ingenuity; it felt real. In a time when media is everywhere; on our computers, phones, or tablets, the fact that a movie could appear real is a far more appealing option to attention-deprived audiences than to study a truly great film, and decide for themselves what to absorb and apply.

But we have reached an impasse; now even found-footage appears cliche and redundant. That is why Chronicle, which may lend a “cliche and redundant” vibe to all those who have yet to view it, is actually a shining star amidst a period in decline, mainly because it doubles as a smart film, reaching beyond the parameters that has been set by movies of its nature. This is incredibly entertaining stuff, and means far more than you could predict with a simple trailer, which among five, similarly-plotted others, may not stand out at all.

Not to say that Josh Trank has made a “great” picture.  For instance, in my own high school experience, I never went to a gigantic rave, a house party at a goddamn mansion, or took part in a talent show act at least three times the length of all the others. But as a normal human being, fully bound by the laws of physics (and far more realistic teenage years), I could truly relate to these characters, who seemed awfully like a few I am still fortunate to know. On another note, God knows how Trank and company were able to stage some of these FX shots with such a miniscule budget. Finally, a filmmaker who has found out how to make CGI pop off the screen, without adding an extra dimension.

Several years from now, when found-footage is a distant period in cinematic history, let’s hope Chronicle is one that is revisited. It has the mixed benefits of appearing in the later stages of the genre’s popularity; not garnering unanimous praise, but leaving plenty of opportunity for a cult following. Chronicle is one of the most surprising films of 2012, a satisfying blend of creativity, thought, emotion, and captivating style. One day, it might sit on a shelf next to Apollo 18. Let’s hope that through some extraterrestrial blessing, we can place the odds in this film’s favor.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5

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