Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Max Landis (Screenplay/Story), Josh Trank (Story)
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Ashley Himshaw
Running time: 84 minutes
Over the past few years, the found-footage genre has remained one of the most common ‘go-to’ formulas for renegade filmmakers and debutant directors. The genre’s low-budget, do-it-yourself sensibilities are certainly an appealing prospect to the studios; the phenomenal financial success of The Blair Witch Project proved that vast sums of money could be generated from shaky-camerawork and queasy ultra-realism. When the genre works (Rec/Blair Witch), the found-footage approach is one of the most absorbing techniques in modern cinema, able to adequately portray a level of realism that is missing from larger budget studio productions. All-too-often though, the vast majority of these films come across as little more than frustrating exercises in confusion (Cloverfield/Apollo 18) or painfully-boring snore-fests (Paranormal Activity and its sequels). Getting it right is much more difficult than might first be anticipated, and the staggering rate with which found-footage films appear has lowered the genre to the level of oversaturation and audience contempt.
Directed by Josh Trank and penned predominantly by Max Landis (yes, he is the son of legendary filmmaker, John Landis), Chronicle is the latest in a long line of films to adopt a faux-realistic, shaky-cam approach, complete with the now customary justifications as to why events are being filmed. It endeavours to portray real-life characters in extraordinary circumstances through the lens of amateur docu-footage, and, against all the odds, it actually works.
The film is ‘chronicled’ by Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), an awkward teenage outcast who decides to fill the void in his life with a rather large shoulder-cam that he carries with him everywhere, from car journeys and school corridors, to large-scale teenage parties that only serve to highlight the extent of his social exile. The camera acts as a barrier to reality for Andrew, and this is just the way he likes it. At home, he has to deal with an abusive father and a sick mother. His only friend is his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who tries his best to include Andrew in social events and parties. At one such party Andrew and Matt, along with the instantly likeable Steve (Michael B. Jordan), discover a hole in the ground that seems to be the source of a number of strange sounds and vibrations. Andrew is asked to document the discovery on his camera as the trio descend into its dark recesses; in the hole there is a strange glowing crystal, to which the three amateur explorers are inexplicably drawn. Suddenly, a huge sonic vibration causes the camera to flicker violently before going black; you’ve seen it so many times before that you’d be forgiven for expecting the film to descend into a claustrophobic survival horror of dark spaces and bloodthirsty creatures. Not so; when the image returns we see the three teenagers laughing and joking on a brightly-lit lawn, playing a ball-throwing game and capturing its peculiarities on camera. They’re safe and relaxed, and somehow they’ve developed the power of telekinesis.
To give too much away of what follows would be to spoil the fun. Suffice to say, Andrew, Matt and Steve employ their new-found superpowers just as most of us would; they play pranks on unsuspecting members of the public, clown around at school, and spend most of their time exploring the limitless possibilities of their abilities by pushing the boundaries and testing the limits. As the unity within the trio grows stronger, so does their powers, and Andrew is able to climb the social ladder and gain a degree of popularity. Thankfully, the whole journey is documented on Andrew’s trusted camera for us all to see.
Chronicle is noteworthy for a number of reasons. As a contemporary spin on the superhero genre, the film provides an engaging and unique depiction of three friends who discover both the benefits of, and the responsibilities that come with, such awe-inspiring powers. The found-footage approach benefits the film because it adds to the credibility of events; we discover the hole in the ground at the same time that our three chroniclers do, and we witness their powers grow and develop from there. There is a memorable scene in the film where our heroes (and I use that term loosely) discover that they can fly; we feel the exhilaration of such a discovery as if we were there, and this kind of spontaneity and immediacy is only really achievable through a found-footage approach. The film side-steps one the genre’s most intrinsic flaws (that of never seeing the man behind the camera) by switching between cameras; this is demonstrated early on at a party where we are suddenly presented with a reverse shot through the lens of another amateur camera. For the film’s climatic scenes, all manner of cameras are used, including news broadcasts and CCTV cameras. It’s not cheating, but simply improvising and expanding, and in a genre that has grown stale and predictable, that can never be a bad thing.
Another reason why Chronicle works so well lies with its relatively unknown cast. All three main actors manage to feel authentic and believable amidst the sheer incredibility of events, portraying just the right mix of wide-eyed wonder and youthful rebellion. Dane DeHaan gives perhaps the stand-out performance as the ‘lonely loser’, Andrew, and around the hour-mark, when the film’s tone shifts from playful exuberance to ominous psychosis, DeHaan is able to move with it. He is both pitiful and frightening as the lost and confused teenager, and the film benefits greatly from such a believable performance. The film’s script is smart and well-written, and allows the actors enough room to breathe. There are also a number of scenes that feel improvised, and these only benefit the film’s faux-realistic form.
Chronicle is by no means a perfect film, and it has its fair share of flaws. No matter how much the film tries, it can never really shake off the question that haunts every found-footage movie: just why are they still filming? The use of more than one camera effectively stops the issue from spoiling events and keeps things fresh, but that question still inevitably rears its head whenever events get too out of control. The final scenes of the film are also slightly problematic in that they rely too heavily on special effects; Chronicle‘s effects are, on the whole, pretty impressive, and with an estimated budget that only just exceeds the ten million dollar mark, it’s hard to see any other superhero movie being so effective on so little. Yet, after such a subtle and nuanced build-up, the all-out assault that occurs during the film’s final scenes does feel a little jarring.
Nevertheless, clocking in at a lean 85 minutes, Chronicle is an enjoyable and surprisingly watchable found-footage movie that takes the superhero genre and reduces its scope to three average teenage friends and their amateur camera. Witnessing first-hand how the young friends develop their powers is fun and engaging to watch, and the film works best in its opening stages, when the tone is light-hearted and playful. Yet despite their powers, Andrew, Matt and Steve are very much not superheroes; they don’t save the world, clean up the streets or confront the bad guys in brutal conflict. Instead, they simply have fun, content to experiment with their powers until the weight of such ability proves too much for one of them. Josh Trank deserves a great deal of credit for trying something different with Chronicle, and if you’re willing to check in your found-footage preconceptions at the door, there’s much to enjoy through the lens of Trank’s (or is it Andrew’s?) camera.