The found footage genre has enjoyed a boom recently (the Paranormal Activity's, the REC's, The Last Exorcism, Cloverfield, Trollhunter, TV's The River, et al)—but while it's always been a comfortable fit for the horror genre, I never expected a superhero origin movie to benefit from its first-person storytelling device. Chronicle, a frugal $15m production from newcomer Josh Trank, proved me entirely wrong. It's remarkable how well the POV-style works to tell a fairly generic origin story for its three "supers", only really asking audiences to swallow the idea of a shy teenager deciding to videotape his entire life one fateful day. And, later, for another character to be doing likewise for a documentary she's making, just to give us a different vantage point for awhile. But I was fine with some of the strain Chronicle sometimes encountered (like the number of times a camera's left unsupervised to record a critical moment of plot), because the overall effect was just so great.
Sullen Seattle teenager Andrew (Dane DeHaan) comes from a fractured family (his father's a violent drunk, his mother's dying of cancer), and finds respite from school bullies with cousin Matt (Ale Russell) and his best-friend Steve (Michael B. Jordan), before all three are given telekinesis after touching a green meteorite buried in the ground. The majority of Chronicle then follows this unlikely trio, as the bonds of friendship tighten in the wake of them learning to control and develop their abilities to do increasingly extraordinary things (going from levitating Lego bricks and baseballs, to moving parked cars and flying through the clouds like Supermen). Chronicle presents one of the most plausible representations of what ordinary folk would do with superpowers (even more so than gritty TV series Misfits), and for long periods of time it's an absolute pleasure to watch these guys flex their super-muscles... before, inevitably, events conspire to turn the harangued Andrew into an uncontrollable, egotistical, self-identified "apex predator", out for Carrie-style revenge on those who made his life a misery. And it all builds to a stunning climax of city-wide destruction that evokes memories of Superman II via Akira.
It's unfortunate that Chronicle doesn't actually have anything fresh to say about teenagers and superheroes, as the scripts covers the standard themes of alienation and "absolute power corrupting absolutely", but those themes are popular and commonly recycled for a reason. At least this movie retelling them in a fresh and inventive style. That's not to say Trank's movie is a style-over-substance misfire, and for the most part it's an absolute joy to see exactly how events escalate. For a movie created on The Avengers' catering budget, it's also a very pleasant visual surprise. Nothing about it looks cheap. In fact, I genuinely think the flying sequence in this movie eclipse those we've seen in the mega-budgeted likes of The Matrix Revolutions and Superman Returns. The simple sound of the wind on a camera mic is enough to sell what's being presented in a far more persuasive way.
The actors are also very good, and it helped that they were all fresh faces to me. DeHaan is particularly strong and watchable, getting to show what would happen if a Peter Parker type shirked the "great responsibility" that comes with "great power"; showing us a hero-turned-villain whom you feel real sympathy for as his arc starts to inspire heartache, dread, and tragedy.
It's a short movie at 83-minutes, although it feels considerably longer because its simple story has clearly been stretched by showing prolonged sequences of the guys playing pranks on strangers to test the limits of their abilities. There were admittedly moments when the concept Chronicle lost its shine as the story slackened, but thankfully a thrilling final act won me back around. The fact Trank has now been tapped to direct a reboot of The Fantastic Four is all you really need to know, because Chronicle works as a brilliant calling card for a new talent. I just hope his direction proves equally as capable in a traditional filming style, as found footage movies can sometimes be a crutch. Not that they're easy to do well, because so many are outright bores (Apollo 18, The Devil Inside), but I still feel Trank needs to prove himself with a gimmick-free movie.
The Fantastic Four will certainly represent a big challenge for Trank, but I'm excited he's involved because Chronicle at least proves he understands group dynamics, the deep-rooted appeal of superpowers, and the pleasures of fantastical movies with verisimilitude.
directed by Josh Trank / written by Max Landis (story by Max Landis & Josh Trank) / starring Dane DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly & Alex Russell / 20th Century Fox / 83 mins.