Movies

Movie Review: Origin Issues

With found footage comes found responsibility for the troubled telekinetic teenagers of Chronicle.

WARNING: MAY CONTAIN MILD (AND SHAKY) SPOILERS!

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has a rough life. His father (Michael Kelly) is an abusive alcoholic, his mother is dying of cancer, and he’s the designated victim for the bullies both in his neighborhood and high school. The closest thing he has to a friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell). Andrew begins documenting his life on video, which goes about as well for those around him as one might expect given the circumstances. While attending a rave in a secluded barn, Andrew and Matt are convinced by school top jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan) to investigate a strange hole in the middle of the forest where they find a large, glowing…thing. Shortly thereafter, the boys discover that they have developed telekinetic abilities that are steadily growing more and more powerful. When Andrew begins to use his abilities to take revenge on the people who’ve wronged him, the three boys find themselves in a power struggle that may destroy everything and everyone around them.

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It’s all fun and games until someone loses a life.

At the start of 2012, two sub-genres of film have reached the point commonly referred to as played out: the found footage film and the superhero origin story. For every REC there’s two of The Devil Wtihin and for every X-Men: First Class, there’s an X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Combining the two may sound like a recipe for disaster, but director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of director John Landis) have developed a compelling, original take on these tropes that injects new life into both of them. 

By documenting the characters’ development through modern society’s favorite form of narcissism—the ubiquitous camera lens—Trank and Landis give the film’s setting and cast an undeniable level of realism. When The Blair Witch Project ignited the found footage craze, all the way back in the dark ages of 1999, increasingly more ludicrous excuses for the documenting cameras had to be invented. However, in Chronicle, the camera is just another fact of life. Andrew’s camera isn’t the only source of footage: there’s the camera of a high school video blogger, security footage, police cameras and, of course, the cell phones of random bystanders engaged in the 21st-century version of rubbernecking. Once Andrew gains enough control of his powers to levitate the camera and have it hovering around him anytime he wants, the film takes on a more cinematic sheen. It’s as if the film is maturing along with its protagonists.

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Dark cave, old camera, no survival skills. What could possibly go wrong?.

It’s become almost cliche to have a found footage film result because a character has the inexplicable desire to record everything he or she sees. In the era of YouTube stardom and viral videos, it doesn’t seem nearly as implausible as it used to. When Steve asks Andrew point blank why he records everything, he flatly responds, “Maybe I want a barrier.” The video footage is Andrew’s way of immortalizing himself, of making him feel as if he matters. He’s routinely degraded both at home and at school and made to feel the outcast. The video makes him feel a part of the world as much as it cuts him off from it. As the film progresses and the boys become more confident and public with their powers, more and more of the scenes are filmed through cameras other than Andrew’s. Finally, he’s succeeded: he’s become a part of the culture by becoming a constant subject of our cameras. 

To say that this doesn’t go over well would be a gross understatement. The more scrutiny Andrew faces, the more he lashes out. It comes as no surprise that Andrew is the first to use his powers violently. While the boys at first engage in relatively harmless pranks—moving someone’s car in a parking lot, terrorizing a little girl with a floating teddy bear—things quickly take on a sinister turn when Andrew first uses his powers to send an annoying motorist hurtling off the road and into a lake. Matt tries to lay down rules for their powers, but how do you place rules on someone who can use city buses as javelins and can fly as high as a jumbo jet? The powers amplify the boys’ true personalities, exposing every fear, insecurity and hope all at once. Steve just wants to have fun and be cool, while Matt wants to have an orderly, normal life. Andrew, however, wants validation, and like a child acting out just to get attention (any attention), he’s willing to do anything to do it.

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Oh, we can’t have nice things.

The film really belongs to Andrew, and Dane DeHaan does a fantastic job in making Andrew more than a disaffected loner. He’s highly sympathetic, even when he starts to use his powers to fuel his personal vendettas. DeHaan is secure and confident in his understanding of Andrew and the circumstances that have beaten him into the traumatized emotional victim he’s become. He’s a complex antihero turned villain, his origins instantly recognizable and relatable. It’s hard to actively dislike him, since he connects in some way to the deep feeling of social disconnect that most of us have felt at one point or another. 

The other boys may not be as central to the film’s driving action, but they’re just as vibrant. Michael B. Jordan’s Steve is a clever subversion of the typical depiction of non-Caucasians in superhero films. Of all the boys, he’s the most respected, most social and most connected. He’s the star of the school, with a letterman jacket and a cheerleader girlfriend. Steve’s glee at his new found powers is just one more bit of cool added to the mix, and Jordan is great at getting this across. Alex Russell’s Matt is perhaps the most dynamic of the trio, however. Starting out as a pretentious too-cool-for-school type who constantly drops names of various philosophers (while not quite getting their ideas right), the powers give him a new found confidence and an ironic doorway to the movie-tale life he seeks. He starts dating pretty, intelligent video blogger Casey (Ashley Hinshaw) and seems to actually become more handsome as his powers improve (while Andrew appears to become more burned out). It’s perhaps inevitable that he and Andrew would come into conflict as Matt becomes more part of society and Andrew becomes more outside of it.

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Not seen: a copy of the Dark Phoenix Saga.

The film never explains how or why the boys were “gifted” with telekinesis. The glowing thing is obviously of alien origin and appears to have crashed onto our planet. It’s purpose and mechanisms, however, are never made clear. That’s actually for the best, though. The how isn’t necessarily important for this story; it’s much more concerned with the question, “So now what?” Was the thing a deliberate delivery to encourage human development, like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey? Or is it a new version of Lovecraft’s The Colour Out Of Space? While steps are put into place to suggest that the thing may be explained more in future installments, the film is content to make the audience speculate on the answer. Unlike films like Cloverfield, Chronicle never reveals too much and is all the better for it.

The film’s style is both its most interesting aspect and its biggest downfall. Although video cameras have become more and more sophisticated since the Blair Witch days, they’re still not James Cameron‘s Fusion System Camera. The relative graininess of the medium allows the special effects to blend in easier with the setting. Aside from a few moments toward the beginning, it really looks as if we have documentary footage of telekinetic teenagers. When they finally learn to fly (by using telekinesis on themselves), it’s a rush for the audience because we feel as if we’re right up in the clouds with them (along with that incoming jumbo jet). However, by the end of the film, the camera conceit begins to stretch plausibility. As Seattle is trashed in an epic superpower battle, the excuses for camera lenses become more strained and the film cross-cuts between sources at a dizzying rate. While it’s thrilling to be in a car while its being flung through the air and the camera operator has a panic attack, it’s in clear “TURN THE CAMERA OFF, YOU IDIOT!” territory.

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I find your lack of HD disturbing.

But then the realization hits you that this is not so unrealistic after all. This is simply how many people operate today, constantly hooked into a lens. It makes sense that the boys would videotape everything. How else will they show the world how cool they are? In a world of Snookis and Chris Carters, it’s the quickest and surest way to widespread notoriety. At the same time, the camera is seen as a facet of emotional immaturity, an obvious coping mechanism to protect and understand a world we have no control over. The superboys of Chronicle are as human, fallible and flawed as everybody else, even more so after they gain their powers. You will believe that an 18-year-old boy can fly…and blast holes into buildings. Trank and Landis more than understand the allure and fascination with metahuman exploits, and as a result, the film is a thrilling bit of immediate gratification that isn’t immediately forgotten after the credits roll. If only all superhero origin films (*cough* Green Lantern *cough cough*) were so dynamic, arresting and realistic.

Rating: 8 out of 10 / A-

JOHNNY M is a frequent FBOTU contributor and possess the power of sarcasm.<a href="http://www.fanboysoftheuniverse.com/index.php/forums/member/21/" title="imageimage

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