Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
To talk about Chronicle is to talk about where superhero movies are these days. Almost universally adaptations of Marvel and DC Comics’ major properties, the past four decades (with a big upswing since X-Men hit the scene right around the millenium) have been full of trademarked names and rabid discussions of how a costume will look translated to film, nods to fans, endless Stan Lee cameos, and Samuel L Jackson always, always showing up at the end. It’s become so entrenched that Marvel churns out the exact same movie once or twice a year, assembly-line build ups to bigger event properties. Superhero movies have become just like the comic books they’ve come from.
Chronicle shows us another way. Based on nothing more than a script, Chronicle is superhero deconstructed, not entirely dissimilar to the way that Unbreakable did once upon a time, and with it a chance to reexamine exactly what makes the superhero genre work. Because Chronicle, above all else, works; in fact, it redeems many of the prior assumptions I had about what didn’t work in the genre, through nothing more complicated than telling a good story. To clarify, Chronicle is the story of three high school kids who stumble across a mysterious sinkhole and hop down it, only to find a strange crystal that gives them rapidly developing telekinetic powers. The movie mostly explores what they do and how they are changed by said powers. It’s also found footage, but we’ll get to that later.
The three kids start out in three wildly different places. The protagonist Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a quintessential high school loser, sullen and withdrawn and picked on. His home life is also bad, with a mother dying of cancer and a father on disability who mostly gets drunk and resents the world as his key character trait. His cousin Matt (Alex Russell) is a kid who was once popular, seemingly, but in high school decided he was too cool for socialization and mostly spends time preening a disaffected image, quoting philosophers and cutting class. The third, Steve (Michael B Jordan) is one of the most popular kids in school: frontrunner for class president, charismatic, beloved by seemingly everyone. But once they all discover the plot device and gain their powers, the three become inseparable, instantly cut off from the others by this new thing that they spend much of the movie exploring.
What works early on is the establishment of characters you care about. None of these three is much more than a cliche, really, but they’re given good beats to play off of and even Matt and Steve, easy to peg as assholes, are nuanced and likable. Matt’s front of intellectualism falls fairly quickly when he runs into the girl he’s had a crush on for years. Steve isn’t a bully, he just travels in a wildly different social circle, one Andrew always just assumed was full of bad guys due to how excluded he felt from it. And when the three of them come together to spend much of the middle part of the movie exploring and expanding their powers, it contains within it much of the joy of discovery and power fantasy fun of similar scenes in Superman or Spider-Man. When they race each other to assemble LEGO with their mind, or finally discover they can take to the air with stumbling leaps and crashes, it’s full of small touches that make it feel relatable and warm in a human way. It’s nothing new, but it’s shown to us in the right way, not simply told as a matter of course.
Eventually it starts to go bad. Andrew has a rise and fall as the other two conspire to use their powers to get him popular and try to integrate him into the society he felt so marginalized by. Unfortunately, for every step forward something happens to spoil it, and that combined with his mother’s final fatal decline and his father’s continual harassment pushes Andrew into a darker place. We watch as he becomes increasingly powerful, increasingly reliant on his powers, and begins to use them to lash out. At first it’s just accidents, but quickly it becomes retaliation against those who wrong him, and grows ever more sinister from there. There’s a scene where Andrew explains his position, talking about the idea of apex predators at the top of food chains and how that absolves him of any sense of moral obligation, that is genuinely chilling not just from how bad you know everything is going to go, but from how much you really don’t want to see Andrew go down this path. We’ve followed him along to this point, and he’s been the most sympathetic character, but he makes a choice that we can’t follow him down, and that’s the key to good tragedy.
Eventually it morphs into a battle of friends having to stop a friend from doing what they know to be wrong, and it takes the idea of superheroes and supervillains and grounds it so firmly in the world we understand that it makes the broader tragedy, the kind of hero/villain dichotomy from your Spider-Mans or X-Men and grounds it straight into the world we understand. It helps turn what is so often arch into the intimate result of what happens when friends fall out and teenage impulse leads to bad choices with magnified disastrous results as the friends engage in a Seattle-destroying battle that is part Superman part Akira, but ultimately more an emotional conflict than an action one.
Which brings us to the thing that might be the most controversial part of the movie: the found footage. This is the year it seems like most low budget features are going to choose found footage as their mode of storytelling, and this movie definitely goes further than most in establishing the world. It’s less ‘here’s a tape we found’ and instead a collage of dozens of video sources, most of them from Andrew’s camera but augmented with news cameras, CCTV security footage, cell phones, and more. For the most part it’s filmed by Andrew, who starts out with an old film camera that quickly gets broken and replaces it once he has his powers with an HD camera he ends up spending most of the movie manipulating with his telekinesis. Which allows it to mostly avoid all the shakey-cam, missing-filmmaker conventions of the genre, as the camera swoops around Andrew and settles into very cinematic angles.
Which is neat, I suppose, but asks the question of whether or not the affectation, which takes up a bunch of the script as people talk about the camera and react to being filmed. If the movie goes out of its way to break away from the found footage hallmarks to look like a conventional* movie, wouldn’t it be better as a conventional movie? I think that’s a fair argument, to be honest, as many scenes stretch the believably of found footage too far to bear. In those instances, it feels like a cop out affectation. Other times, where multiple cameras meet and you see footage and reactions from both sides, or during the finale which is cobbled together from a dozen wildly different sources, it feels like the movie uses the device as a reflection on identity in how others see us versus how we try to present ourselves. Those questions of identity are key to both superhero fiction and teenage drama, and if that’s indeed what they were going for I simply wish it was fleshed out a little more to explore what could be an interesting space utilizing what many consider a ‘fad’.
But either way, it all comes together as an interesting crossroads of various genres and conventions to refresh all of them. I am woefully tired of superheroes, but Chronicle reminded me that what I’m tired of is the demands of legacy and fandom, the marketing desire for franchise building, the safe comfortable choices made by institutions that are pushing products that are meant to last decades. At its core, the superhero journey, from humanity to empowerment to being forced to confront reality with something so potentially beneficial or dangerous? That totally still works. It just requires the stripping away of labored cameos, extensive costuming workshops, and formulaic origin story building to rediscover the power of this branch of storytelling. Chronicle isn’t anything new, but it certainly feels refreshing. And that’s a small bit of heroics in itself.
*I originally put real in here instead of conventional, which is endemic to the general feeling of found footage as a cinematic gimmick mostly relegated to horror movies. That probably will cease being the case over time, though I still think that Blair Witch Project aside, we’re still waiting for the movie that justifies found footage as a cinematic decision on par with conventional storytelling. In some ways, it still struggles to justify itself as more than a crutch. But I did change it, because dismissing a movie for having that style seems like an increasingly narrow-minded and backwards idea.