Every now and then, a small film comes along and illustrates what Hollywood has been doing wrong, by getting everything right. The new movie Chronicle, a surprising smash hit at the weekend box office, takes two stale and overcrowded genres – “found footage” movies and super-heroes – and breathes new life into both, delivering far greater spectacle than last summer’s Green Lantern dud, with a tiny fraction of the budget. The Green Lantern production team probably spent more on catering than Chronicle spent on special effects, but the lower-budget film is far more visually astonishing. I’ve seen few more breathtaking sequences put to film than Chronicle’s stratospheric football game.
One of the reasons Chronicle looks so good is the conceit of filming most of the story through a hand-held video camera, carried by one of the protagonists. Slipping clever CGI effects into this medium results in a kind of “holy crap, I’m really watching this happen” vibe that allows Chronicle to punch far above its weight in the visual effects department. For those who hate the shaky-cam nausea and claustrophobic fixed viewpoints of many other found-footage movies, have no fear: Chronicle finds a very clever way to get around all that.
As with most good movies, Chronicle succeeds because of its limitations. Big studio blockbusters have grown flaccid because they’re self-indulgent. For crying out loud, even the costumes in Green Lantern were CGI creations. A slender budget, coupled with the found-footage conceit, forces director Josh Trank and his amazingly talented cast to focus on plot and characters. It’s a simple plot, including some familiar elements lifted from super-hero literature, and even a dash of Carrie, but that shouldn’t stop us from appreciating how well it’s executed.
Stephen King’s horror classic Carrie placed terrible telekinetic powers in the hands of a repressed, vulnerable young girl. Chronicle gives them to three teenage boys, following an encounter with a mysterious buried artifact. The boys proceed to behave in a delightfully realistic goofball manner, using their growing powers for stupid but hilarious hijinks, such as moving around the cars in a parking lot and watching confused shoppers try to find their vehicles.
Soon the personalities of the young men begin asserting themselves, and the story is driven in a darker direction by the tortured Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who comes home to a nightmarish home life after spending his days getting smacked around by every bully in school. Andrew’s rise and fall is simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying. His two friends, who initially have comparable abilities but soon find Andrew growing disturbingly stronger than both of them, are also well-drawn and nicely played by Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan. For a found-footage movie, Chronicle provides a surprising amount of character development. Even Andrew’s drunken lout of a father (Michael Kelly) is not quite the one-dimensional monster he initially seems.
Andrew’s father is a pivotal character, because this is ultimately a story about the failure of fatherhood. What Chronicle’s budding demigods lack is the kind of moral education that Jonathan Kent gave to his boy Clark, or Peter Parker received from his beloved Uncle Ben. In Chronicle, Andrew’s father is a beast, and the parents of the other boys make no impact upon the story at all. That leaves all three of them trying to figure out the principles of discipline, compassion, and responsibility on their own. Bereft of guidance, and the wisdom of generations gone by, they’re left to piece together the morality of power through trial and error. Some horrible mistakes are made.
The other two boys are not well-equipped to deal with their friend Andrew’s profound sense of alienation. They don’t even really understand it. Class presidential candidate Steve is a one-hundred-percent nice guy who seems incapable of grasping what drives people to do bad things. Easygoing Matt wants to do the right thing, but discovers the few snippets of senior-year psychology he can recite, without completely understanding, are insufficient to deal with the growing darkness in his cousin Andrew’s soul. They think he’s just awkward and frustrated, but he’s actually coming to the conclusion that he is no longer a member of the human race. He started feeling that way before he received immense supernatural powers.
A sly commentary on the inadequacy of our therapeutic culture to deal with great moral questions, and real emotional anguish, can be found mixed with the super-powered pranks and supernatural tragedy. It’s also interesting to watch Matt’s shallow, conventional concept of civic virtue evolve. He really does want to be a “good guy,” but at the beginning of the story, he thinks that just means mouthing some bumper-sticker platitudes to impress a socially-conscious girl he likes. He learns it takes a lot more than that to be a hero.
The one false note in Chronicle is the boys’ seeming ignorance of comic book superhero culture. No one thinks to quote Spider-Man’s motto about great responsibility coming with great power, or grab a stack of graphic novels and use the adventures of Superman as an instruction booklet for their increasingly potent abilities. It seems a bit odd that young men gifted with super-powers would not have a few comic-book-nerd conversations. Perhaps this was a budgetary limitation, or maybe the writers wanted to tell their story without leaning on other modern mythologies as crutches. Their approach gives us an interesting scene where one of the boys finally decides to don a costume, and makes a choice that might seem puzzling to non-comics fans… while those versed in superhero mythology will realize that he’s doing exactly what Bruce Wayne did, and dressing in the most frightening garb he can think of.
A lot of big-budget superhero films are coming this summer. Their producers paid a fortune to advertise them during the Super Bowl. A low-budget movie with a largely unknown cast and crew just gave them a high bar to clear. It will be interesting to see if the big studio films can give us anything to rival the last twenty minutes of Chronicle, which not only looks amazing, but means something.