It is testament to the quality of Chronicle that in the glut of mega-budget superhero blockbusters adapted from pre-existing source material with a readily installed fanbase, not to mention appearing at the tail end of this post-Blair Witch found footage cycle, it still manages to impress and feel fresh and distinctive. The set-up hardly inspires (three teenagers – clever hunk, popular jock, social outcast – get superpowers, and it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt), but Chronicle succeeds through its performances, tone and personality.
For starters, it’s not really a conventional superhero film. Sure, boxes are ticked, geek wish fulfilment enacted upon, but while there’re special powers, there’s no fighting of crime or righting of wrongs. Equally, there are no plots to take over the world or grand schemes to wreak acts of mass destruction. Rather, as the trio take control of their (largely telekinesis-based) powers and they grow stronger, their trials and tribulations evolve organically. And it’s in a large part to the strong central performances (notably, the superb Dane DeHaan as lead character and principal documenter Andrew, who doesn’t so much go through a story arc as an emotional megacoaster) that it’s easy to be swept up in their highs and lows.
To start, they do what any teenage boys would do – Jackass-style pranks attempting to injure themselves and freak out the general public. And as they become closer and they explore the limits of their abilities, it makes it all the more tragic when personal clashes bubble to the surface. Most movies of this ilk only flirt with the darkness that underpins the “great power, great personality” motto or any variation thereof, whereas Chronicle readily embraces it, and just as many a would-be superhero come from a broken home of sorts, few are quite as frankly and unflinchingly portrayed as here. So there is an inevitability in Chronicle’s course, but not necessarily in its methods. Crashes, bangs and wallops abound, but the quieter moments, the foreboding, the smaller unexpected flourishes, are what stay with you.
Where debut director Josh Trank comes unstuck though is with the central framing device, which does virtually nothing with its found-footage gimmick, except perhaps give the film a title. Bar the occasional interesting visual trick (Andrew’s moments of reflection suspending the camera mid-air, for instance), it rarely enhances, and, at certain points, directly interferes with, the action on screen. While the initial reasoning is understandable (Andrew both documenting his abuse and using the viewfinder as a way to separate himself from his harsh reality), the film ties itself in knots with excuses for maintaining the ruse – something the likes of District 9 managed to avoid by dropping the conceit whenever it inconvenienced the story. There is both too much clunky explanation as to why particular sequences are being filmed, but yet not enough indication as to for whom what we are watching is directed, and why indeed it has all been edited together. Instead, we have one female character doubling up in the thankless role of both object of affection and unconvincing fellow videographer. And it all struggles to hold together come the big finale and its multi-lens requirements, and no supposed commentary on the “constantly filmed via CCTV and cameraphones” society in which we live can change my mind on that front.
Yet Chronicle still works wonders, rising above its deficiencies, in terms of both technique and budget. Simply put, it is the best original superhero film since the underappreciated Unbreakable, and in many ways feels like a companion piece – just with a dash of Akira thrown in for good measure. With The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Dark Knight Rises et al around the corner, Chronicle is an unexpected but welcome surprise for those seeking an alternative to rubber masks and spandex.