Director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of filmmaker John Landis), put a fresh, invigorating spin on the superhero origin story, with Chronicle, a movie so sleek and incredibly ultra-portable, it suggests better things to come from the duo. The two display enough raw talent and ingenuity in their feature debut that this jolt to the found-footage genre transcends its gimmicks with a clever script, fast-paced direction, and engaging performances from its young cast. In many ways less a superhero movie than a coming-of-age story, Chronicle manages to outdo other mega-budget comic book spectacles by deconstructing the conventional superhero narrative and reassembling it as an artful dialogue on the troubled teen psyche.
Chronicle is familiar, and yet unique, in the way it treats the so-called origin story. Trank and Landis imagine what ordinary kids might do when coming into contact with a mysterious rock that gives them superpowers. Their challenge is to find a way to cope with their new found gifts, control their impulses and avoid the temptation of using their powers in the public eye. There’s a savvy naturalism to what is essentially a sci-fi fairy tale, a story that places these otherwise average high schoolers in an extraordinary position. Yet the trio isn’t concerned with joining some elite mutant squad, or saving planet earth from an egomaniac, homicidal super powered villain – in this case, these characters simply have to cope with the challenge of teenage youth – hormones, peer pressure, parental issues, bullying, and so forth – while coming to terms that their newfound powers cannot and will not change their fundamental identities. There is no great call to adventure or heroism in these boys who spend the majority of the pic’s running time testing their abilities by playing pranks – attempting Jackass-style stunts and entering talent shows to impress girls. But there is a great bit of dark comedy, tragedy, levity and sadness; the movie, against all odds, becomes a darkly perverse revenge story for the high-school outsider. With references to Plato and Schopenhauer, Chronicle is best described as a horrifying look at supernatural powers, high school cruelty, and teen angst, a film that gives the superhero genre its best crack at naturalism yet.
First time director Josh Trank’s best asset is also his greatest challenge: The first-person narrative style, once viewed as a gimmicky variant for low-budget productions, wrestles with the logic of having characters constantly filming events with good reason. While the found footage approach has become an increasingly popular conceit, it can at times feel awkward and artificial. Yet with Chronicle, the seemingly low-tech approach makes the teens and their powers all the more believable and invests us in the characters with a surprising economy of screen time. Despite the limitations, Chronicle gains in intimacy and immediacy like no previous superhero movie has achieved.
Chronicle will never be mistaken for an artistic breakthrough, but it is unquestionably endowed with the best special effects this low-budget shaky-cam movie could afford. The effects here (handled by Simon Hansen, second unit director on District 9) are terrific – both seamless and as realistic as can be. Most notable is the climax revolving around Seattle’s Space Needle, a remarkably economical urban view of widespread panic obviously done on a small budget yet rivalling that of any superhero movie of 2011. Shot for a reported $15 million, director Trank wisely strips down the pic – the compositions are visually clutter free, the shots usually static or steady – and the result is pure movie magic.
“The combination of pathos, shocks, and the visceral, visually impressive effects is orchestrated with jaw-dropping precision…
The cast is comprised of professional actors (if unfamiliar faces), which enhances the pseudo-reality of the pic’s style, and allowing audiences to accept their roles with ease. All three characters are designed to illustrate the positive and negative uses of exceptional power. The principals – Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan – represent teen archetypes, but it is DeHaan’s Andrew who steals the show. His intriguing blend of sensitivity and anger makes him highly sympathetic, a peevish Seattle misfit whose authenticity sells the film with an emotionally riveting downward spiral. The fierce sympathy it extends to its unfashionable central character puts the film a million miles above the generic Marvel flick. The best moments come when Andrew uses his powers to vent his neurotic aggression – there’s a brilliantly staged moment of foreboding involving a spider. What happens next is pure poetry.
With a brief 83-minute running time, Chronicle moves along with a brisk pace, while always aware of it’s strengths and limitations. The combination of pathos, shocks, and the visceral, visually impressive effects is orchestrated with jaw-dropping precision by a young filmmaker with a very bright future ahead.