Ever since I was a little boy reading X-Men comics and being all sorts of nerdy, I could only dream of what it would be like to have superpowers. The thought of being able to fly, move objects with my mind and a myriad of other abilities is the stuff that little kids all dream of. What would I do with the powers? Would I like to become one of the heroes that I idolize or perhaps use the powers for my own gain? It’s hard to say, but growing a bit older and reading far more comic books than normal has taught me that powers come at a greater cost.
One of things that I think comic book films have gotten wrong for a long time is really establishing the human and their new-found power. All to often in comics a human discovers they have some new power and go through the struggle of trying to control and understand it. But their struggle is mitigated through the use of a mentor, like the Xavier school or other, older humans who have the same power. Even a father figure, not necessarily a father, comes into play to give some sage advice to the newly bestowed “hero” about who to be a better person. It’s not a cheat per say, but it kind of dissolves the struggle of a young person learning to cope with their new powers.
Chronicle is really “the” origin story that comic books and movies strive to show us. It is, at its heart, a story about young kids being given limitless power, with no knowledge of what they truly have. The film uses the tried and true method of the found footage angle, watching the story unfold through the camera of Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), the typical high school loner who is bullied, ignored at school and even neglected at home. His mother is gravely ill and his father is an abusive drunk who lays all the families trouble on his shoulders. His only tenuous fried is his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), a senior with a penchant for philosophy who tries to get Andrew out of his shell. Andrew has taken to filming his life with his camcorder and is asked by the popular kid Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) to help him and Matt film a discovery they found out in the middle of the forest. They venture down in the hole in the ground and are confronted with what can only be described as an alien artifact. It gives off a loud pulse and the teens are rendered unconscious and the footage lost.
While the first part of the film establishes the typical high school tropes, such as the loner, the popular kid, and the class structure at the school with the typical hierarchy of nerd, jock, bully, and popular kids, it’s the second act that picks up the steam. After a short time after the initial incident in the cave, director and writer Josh Trank explore the newly found powers that the teens have in the most honest portrayal possible. We see the three boys bonding over their powers by doing the typical jackass teen things that are so prevalent on Youtube. The boys use their telekinetic powers to throw baseballs at each other, mess with little kids at toy stores and even the most high schoolish of all things, blowing up the skirts of women. I know I would have done that in my youth and frankly, Josh Trank knows that this what teens would do. But as they use their powers more and more, their become stronger and start to realize that their power is something that is not a gimmick or childish act anymore. Andrew runs a vehicle off the road, not realizing his power is strong than ever and this frightens Steve and Matt. As Andrew’s life starts to become more complicated, he retreats to using his power a means to escape his problems while Matt and Steve go on about their lives.
I am not wanting to give away the remaining plot points, but they will probably be mentioned as I continue the review. Trank managed to accomplish what superhero movies have hinted at and tried to do for a while and that is the showing how young people deal with inhuman powers. Let’s be honest, if you were a kid with limitless powers of telekinesis and flight, what would you do? We become reckless in using our powers because we don’t know how far they can be taken. The teens in the film come off scared, excited and then ultimately wishing that they didn’t have the powers. I found myself watching enamored at what they were capable of doing, but frightened because we don’t know what happens next with their powers. This is arc that needs to be told and the film does it well. These kids aren’t noble boy scouts that get the powers and immediately do good with them. They dick around like I would and push the boundary of their powers.
Chronicle might be about the story of three teens and their powers, but the focus is on Andrew from the start. We see his life and how it is a place where guidance and love don’t exist. He has a tenuous friendship with his cousin and superficial bond with Steve because of the powers and experience they share. This is truly more or less, the birth of a villain, a wayward soul who is lost and can’t find his way back from a life of abuse and neglect. It’s tragic in every sense of the word, watching Andrew struggle to care for his mother, fend off his father, deal with the pangs of being a teen in high school and coping with his telekinesis. From his growth as the loner to popular kid, to early signs of being consumed by his powers, the ultimate blow comes as he is pushed to his end just to save his mother and with no one to turn to. The final culmination of his powers manifest in a battle that sees him tearing apart Seattle while Matt tries desperately to reach him in some way. It’s heartbreaking to watch him unravel before our eyes and while the fast paced action of cars being thrown around like Matchbox cars, you yearn to see someone just reach out and hug him.
There are a lot of wonderful things to be said about the movie, from the use of powers by the young teens, to the perfect representation of high school life, Chronicle isn’t without its faults. There are several shortcomings with the story, namely the stilted and convenient romance subplot that Matt engages with a fellow student, who also happens to be a vlogger. It’s like the film wanted to take it somewhere, but every time they meet and try to progress it, the story just stops and doesn’t go anywhere. It didn’t feel right within the context of the story, but since she is a vlogger, it’s another vantage point where we can view the teens and their struggle with the change. The ending of the film, which won’t be spoiled, feels like a cheap tack on by the studio to leave the possibility of a sequel open. It doesn’t really add a lot to the story and just detracts from the ending scenario that happens.
Now we come to the big point of the film and honestly the reason why this movie was made. The found footage angle is a one-trick pony that has been beaten to death again and again. Filmmakers seem to trot out this concept as a cheap and easy way to get a movie made since studio executives practically piss themselves at the sound of “found footage”. It’s this mystical cash cow that, sadly, does produce results. In the realm of Chronicle though, the found footage works. Teens video tape themselves all the time and with Youtube, it just seems natural that a camera will be around to film every aspect of our lives. But the use of the gimmick isn’t just a gimmick, it’s the plot device that helps Andrew shield himself from all the troubles of his life. It’s the barrier that he can throw up to observe those around him without people outright questioning him. The female love interest Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) is a vlogger that just explains she is filming her life and people just accept it. Andrew uses this as a way to chronicle his life so at least there will be proof that he existed. As the use of the powers grows, the camera becomes a part of the action and storytelling as it begins to hover on its own, being controlled by Andrew.
Chronicle is one of the best “superhero” movies around. It’s an honest story that reinforces the notion of what I would use my powers for, mainly to dick around. While the action is fast paced, the story is tense and the acting is superb from such a young cast, the movie is complete package. A well-defined origin story and a tragic hero’s journey, Chronicle aims to deliver an original film on a budget that is laughable by most superhero movie standards. That is a testament to what a unique concept, smart casting and a strong story can do for a film.
Chronicle excels at being a comic book movie and a coming of age film with a believable high school aesthetic. Too often the use of a high school setting is just a way for the screenwriter to vent about his or her issues about being picked on in high school. Sure there are bullies and popular kids, but that is every high school and it doesn’t diminish the effect of the story. It helps feed into Andrews eventual spiral and adds to the rage that builds inside of him. Couple the school problems, with the family troubles and you have the perfect tempest for a young teen to lose sight of his life and make terrible decisions, retreating further into his new abilities. Ultimately the young actors make you care about their predicament and instill that wonderment that we all have about what we would do with superpowers. It is basic comic book origin storytelling, but stripping away the mentor aspects allows the film to dive deeper into the insight of what the teens do with their abilities. That is what sets it apart from other film. It is the deconstruction of the superhero genre that allows for a unique take on the comic book premise and really allows Chronicle to transcend and develop their concept and story to the next level.