So, found footage movies . . . not my fave. I mean, there are good ones. I’m not saying there aren’t, but the whole shaky cam thing is . . . just . . . so . . . done. My eyes are rolling into the back of my skull before the latest “I’m-stupidly-holding-onto-a-camera-while-being-chased-by-something-that-wants-to-eat-me” trailer is even halfway over. I’m just so, SO tired of them.
That being said?
This is possibly the most successful found footage movie ever.
Andrew, Matthew, and Steve are three teenagers who gain superpowers after discovering something strange in a cave together. As they learn to control these powers, they bond over meaningful conversations in the clouds and frightening small children with levitating toys. But things start spinning out of control when Andrew (Dane DeHaan) starts using his abilities for darker means.
1. Going into Chronicle, I was both interested and apprehensive about what I would find. On one hand, I love the idea that a few 18-year-olds who gain these awesome superpowers wouldn’t immediately use them for the POWER OF GOOD. You know? With great power comes great responsibility, sure, but it also comes with just amazing opportunities to prank unsuspecting strangers, doesn’t it? Look, I like to think I’m more mature than the average teenage boy, but let’s be honest here: I gain telekinesis tomorrow, and I’m probably not using it to save the world. The snooty, smarmy waiter who served me dinner last night? Yeah, he might have ended up being attacked by mysterious flying rigatoni. At the very least, I’d be doing this. Fighting crime would probably not be high on my to-do list.
On the other hand, though, I was kind of worried that these guys were going to be assholes for the entire movie, and while it can be done, it’s very hard to sell a story where every character is sadistic twerp. Usually, you need to be able to root for or at least sympathize with somebody in the movie. Otherwise, you’re pretty much just hoping for everyone to die and quickly, if you please, because you’ve got things you could be doing.
But the guys in Chronicle aren’t really assholes at all. They do some dumb stuff, and okay, some of their pranks veer towards the dickish, but . . . well, they’re also really funny. I’m not sure if it’s because of the found footage style or not, but as an audience member, you kind of feel like you’re in on the joke, like you’re laughing at the world with them. The actors all have a great chemistry with one another, and their easy banter back and forth really does a lot to lighten the movie. I was honestly surprised by just how funny Chronicle was, despite the fact that it’s in no way, shape, or form a comedy.
2. Addressing my other main concern, the found footage aspect. I think there are a few reasons it works so well here.
2A. Chronicle is not a horror film.
There are some rather horrific moments in Chronicle, and when they do bring the violence, it’s awesome—they make the most of little moments, like instead of seeing this dude’s face all smashed up, you just see the blood smeared on the pavement as his face is peeled away—but it’s not a scary story, and the point isn’t to make you jump . . . which is different from virtually every other found footage film that I can think of offhand. It’s interesting to see the style as applied to another genre of film.
2B. This movie is not a giant commentary on the media.
Found footage films naturally lend themselves to subjects like voyeurism. They talk about journalistic integrity, about capturing real moments, about the youtube generation. They ask questions about our need to document everything in our lives, about our instinct to film something horrible that’s happening instead of trying to stop that horrible thing from happening. These are the kind of important questions that need to be asked . . . except, oh, wait, they’ve already been asked, in Rec, and in Cloverfield, and (I assume) in Diary of the Dead. I mean, I haven’t seen it, but I’d be shocked if George A. Romero passed up the opportunity to throw in some good moralizing.
Chronicle has a tiny bit of this—they talk a little about why Andrew needs the camera with him all the time, what he’s really using it for—but this is more about character development than it is about pushing some kind of message. First and foremost, Chronicle is an origin story, and I really love it for that. It focuses on the people a lot more than it focuses on the moral of the story.
2C. You often completely forget about the camera.
This is easily one of the biggest things Chronicle has going in its favor. At some point during the film, Andrew learns how to levitate the camera so that it’s just sort of floating unobtrusively offscreen with no one behind it. Because of this, it’s the only found footage film I’ve ever seen where you can actually forget about the style or gimmick of the film for awhile and really focus on the story. It’s just a really well crafted, well thought-out movie.
3. Chronicle is also the only movie that’s ever made me feel sort of . . . I don’t know . . . awed at the prospect of flight, I guess? I’ve seen Iron Man and Harry Potter and half a dozen other movies where the characters are whooping along as they soar through the air for the first time, but Chronicle manages to bring you in like you’re actually flying with them, and it’s pretty incredible. Some of the shots are absolutely amazing, considering that—for Hollywood—it’s a fairly low-budget film. (It’s still hard for me to conceive twelve million dollars as low-budget; it just is. I can’t even properly imagine that kind of money.) Anyway, 3-D only wishes it brought you into the action this much.
4. The actors in this movie are all fairly unknown. They’re also very good.
Andrew (Dane DeHaan)
Andrew is the social outcast with serious family problems, so in a sense it’s easy to have sympathy for his character because his whole life kind of sucks. On the other hand, Andrew’s slow descent into darkness has to be awfully well-balanced for you to maintain sympathy for him even after he does some pretty nasty things, and DeHaan manages to pull off the job nicely. You like Andrew, or at least, I did. His character is crafted so tightly that he doesn’t come off as a cliche—which, with a less talented actor, could easily have happened.
Matt (Alex Russell)
Oh, Matt. Matt kind of strikes me as that guy who wants to be cool and is, at the very least, cooler than the kids who get beaten up and shoved into lockers, but really? Everyone knows he’s just a giant nerd. I can’t say I much liked Matt at first—there’s really no way to insert random bits of ancient philosophy into everyday conversations without sounding like a giant pretentious ass—but he grew on me. The first time he hits on this girl while talking about Jung, I was just like, Oh, you loser, go away now, please. But when he awkwardly tries to talk to her again, I just sort of felt bad for him, like, dude just say you like her. That’s all you gotta do.
Matt could be a really boring character—he’s not as angsty as Andrew, not quite as funny as Steve—but Russell manages to keep him interesting while never overacting the part. It’s nicely done.
Steve (Michael B. Jordan)
Michael B. Jordan has his own acting challenge: he gets to play the charismatic, wildly popular high school student who’s also a completely nice guy and make that shit realistic. Maybe this is just that old junior high bitterness resurfacing again, but I’d say that takes talent.
Steve doesn’t have a lot of screentime for personal character development, but what he does have are some really nice scenes with Andrew that give us a good peek at their unlikely friendship. He’s probably the funniest of the three guys and, like Alex Russell, doesn’t ruin his character by trying to oversell anything. This is a fantastical story, but it’s grounded in the realism of the characters and the actors’ understated performances.
5. The rest of my notes includes spoilers, so before I get to those, let me just add a couple of small things I enjoyed:
5A. The guys are incredibly casual with their powers. After they get over the initial shock of discovering something new they can do, they get used to it pretty quickly, like it’s something they’ve been doing all their lives. Levitating cameras or flying out windows just sort of becomes second nature to them, and while it sounds counterintuitive to say this, it seems to add something to the realistic tone of the piece, when you watch these guys lift, say, a beer with their mind, and it doesn’t seem any stranger to you or to them than if they had lifted it with their hands.
5b. I like that all the guys have different strengths with their newfound superpowers. They can all do basically the same stuff, but Steve’s the one who figures out flying first and seems to be a natural at it, whereas Andrew is the master of telekinesis, and Matt appears to be the least vulnerable to harm. It’s just a nice little detail.
And with that, let me lead you to . . .
Well, Andrew goes full-scale evil, of course. It’s sort of inevitable, but it doesn’t feel cliched, either—maybe because it’s so well-written, or maybe because you can kind of see how if this thing happened or that thing didn’t happen, he might have turned into a hero. In another story, Andrew could have been the troubled kid with the good heart that overcomes his awful family shit to fight for what’s right, while Matt could have become the power-hungry one in the group after learning how to use his abilities to impress others and get whatever he wants . . . especially if his girl had rejected him and fallen for Andrew instead. (Poor Steve may have been doomed to play the victim no matter what. He’s too nice and too funny and is therefore destined to tragically die.)
So, Andrew gets into a pretty awful fight with his dad, who starts smacking him around. Andrew decides he doesn’t have to take that bullshit anymore and starts kicking his dad’s ass. Then he flies away to brood in the clouds. As far as brooding goes, it’s fairly impressive. You only wish you could brood with that much lightning surrounding you.
Steve and Matt figure out something’s wrong—they have nosebleeds—but it’s Steve that finds Andrew and confronts him. He tries to get through to Andrew, reminding him that they’re friends and they can talk, but Andrew’s too hurt by the things his father has said to listen. He keeps getting angrier and angrier until he accidentally strikes Steve with lightning, killing him dead.
(And earlier in the film, when it looked like Steve might have bought the farm, my friend Kenny leaned over to me in the theater and whispered that the black guy always dies first. When Steve popped back up unharmed, I was like, well, maybe not this time. Then Steve really did die, and Kenny was like, “My earlier statement still stands.”)
So, Matt’s suspicious, but Andrew denies having anything to do with Steve’s death, though he’s clearly remorseful and grieving. Coupled with his unpopularity, his mother’s worsening condition, and his dad’s inability to pay for her medicine, Andrew starts to lose it. He starts getting into that whole “I’m on a higher plane than y’all, and the lion doesn’t feel guilt for eating the gazelle” philosophy that usually goes along with being an all-powerful supervillain. He starts using his powers to steal money for his mom’s meds and accidentally blows up a gas station while doing it, which puts him in the hospital and under police custody.
Andrew’s mom dies offscreen during all of this because of course she does, and his charming father, Richard (Michael Kelly) informs his unconscious son that he blames Andrew for all of this because if he hadn’t been so self-absorbed, Richard would have been with his wife when she died instead of out looking for his boy. Andrew wakes up before Richard can attack him and blows the holy hell out of the hospital wall, flying outside and dragging a screaming Richard with him.
Matt gets another nosebleed and knows that something’s happened to Andrew again. He and his girlfriend drive to the hospital just in time to see Andrew drop his father from about fifty stories up. Matt flies up in time to save Richard’s miserable little life. Then he and Andrew fight all over the city for a while. It’s awesome.
Even after Andrew tries to crush Matt with a bus, Matt still tries to get through to his cousin. Normally, I’d be all like, okay, Matt, you numbnuts, I think it’s time to kill Andrew now, but I actually like that Matt fights so long and so hard for his friend. Chronicle does a really good job establishing the bonds between these three guys . . . you want things to work out even now, even though you know that any chance of that happening pretty much died when Steve did.
Anyway, so, Matt begs Andrew to stand down, and when he doesn’t, Matt uses a spear from a nearby statue to telekinetically impale his friend before he can kill anyone else. Andrew dies, and Matt flies away before the cops can try to arrest and/or kill him.
The movie ends with Matt in Tibet, positioning Andrew’s videocamera on a mountain top to face an ashram. He talks into the camera, telling Andrew that he finally got there after all. (Andrew had this thing for Tibet and, you know, spiritual enlightenment and all that.) Matt swears he’s going to figure out what happened to them and that he’s sorry for how things turned out. Then he flies away, and that’s the end of the movie.
Really, really strong found footage film and well thought-out origin story. Great balance of awesome action scenes with a ton of character building. Good acting. Great dynamic between all the guys. Clever script. Not something I could watch all the time, but definitely something I could own.
It’s okay to use your superpowers for mischief, as long as no one starts with the more evolved species or apex predator rhetoric. Once that happens, you’re screwed. Best to kill your friend now and be done with it.