Three high schoolers stumble onto a sinkhole in the middle of a field. They descend into it and encounter a mysterious, supposedly alien force that imparts each of them with superpowers in director Josh Trank’s debut feature, Chronicle. Employing the by-now familiar, low-budget artifice of “home video” footage (made famous by The Blair Witch Project on through Cloverfield and the Paranormal Activity series, to name a few), Trank follows the boys’ exhilarating discovery of their telekinetic abilities, beginning with the playing of harmless pranks and culminating in the near-destruction of Seattle.
Chronicle is positioned as a superhero origin story as the teenagers — happy-go-lucky jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan), charming misfit Matt (Alex Garetty) and disturbed loner Andrew (Dane DeHaan) — must contend with whether and how to use their powers. While Steve and Matt are content to limit the use of their abilities for the mere pursuit of fun, Andrew veers off-course and begins a downward spiral into criminality. Andrew’s choice isn’t surprising; as a victim of abuse, a son of an alcoholic father and an ailing mother, it’s only natural that his mind would steer towards revenge and mayhem. That forces the iconoclast Matt into the role of superhero, something he wants nothing to do with, but he’s all that the world has in terms of a defense against Andrew’s armageddon-scale abilities. So, in that sense, we have the creation of the classic Marvel Comics dynamic of the unwilling superhero (in the Peter Parker/Spider-Man mold) against the psychologically damaged arch-villain).
As always in the case of first-person, home video-style movies, the artifice gets in the way of the action. That characters would tote along a camera and have the presence of mind to shoot video while in the midst of wildly traumatic or ecstatic events (whether being chased through the woods by a witch, intruded upon in the middle of the night by a demon, invaded by an alien monster or, in the case of Chronicle, discovering that you have the ability to fly) is simply ridiculous. It’s an artifice that appeals because of its approximation to cable news, YouTube and home videos — things that are as much a part of our lives as the laptop I’m writing on or the tea I’m drinking. The merging of the familiar with the supernatural or the uncanny is what viewers find so irresistible (including me). But when the action ramps up, the artifice reveals itself to be the clumsy gimmick that it is. And it doesn’t fare any better here than it did in the case of its predecessors. While we’re on the subject, Chronicle breaks its own rule by frequently shifting to a smoother, objective visual style when the need arises, thereby wanting the best of both worlds. We only see it, though, as cheating.
That said, Chronicle is an enjoyable spin through the tropes of the superhero origin story. And it takes time to develop its characters richly, Andrew in particular. DeHaan nicely modulates Andrew’s sweet, soft-hearted interior in the movie’s first half with the hardening, monstrous anger that takes over in the second half. And while Russell’s Matt is a somewhat hazier, less sure-footed characterization, we can get behind any character with a dimpled smile who can quote Jung and use the word “hubris” in conversation.
Predictably, Chronicle unravels into forgettable mayhem in its third act as Andrew takes out his pent-up rage on Seattle leading to an Andrew-Matt showdown. Yet the movie’s first half contain enough unique moments to prove that Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have more than spectacle in mind. The scenes in which the boys first try out their powers come off best. Trank maintains a low-key, open-eyed curiosity throughout these scenes and a childlike sense of wonder prevails, most memorably in the “I-can-fly” sequence, which unlocks a primal sort of exhilaration in the viewer to match that of the characters. Moments like these demonstrate perhaps the most effective use of the home video style since “The Blair Witch Project,” anchoring their characters’ (and our) shock and surprise at the supernatural in the background of the familiar.
Directed by: Josh Trank
Written by: Max Landis
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Anna Wood, Bo Petersen