I have a recurring dream of being able to fly. (I also have another recurring dream of having to take my SPM all over again, even though I am an adult with a job and a salary so why would I need the goddamn SPM cert anymore goddammit, but let's not go there.) To soar through the clouds and swoop between and around skyscrapers with a simple effort of will has always been my single most appealing fantasy, and there's one exhilarating scene in Chronicle that fulfills that fantasy for me handily. That scene alone would've been enough for me to enjoy, and recommend, this movie.
Fortunately, it has more to offer than pure fantasy fulfilment.
Three highschool seniors - shy loner Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), his cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell), and popular school president candidate Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) - discover a mysterious hole in the ground and an otherworldly glowing object inside - and as a result, they gain superhuman powers. Thrilled by their discovery, they hone their newfound abilities through juvenile pranks and general goofing around. But Andrew's unhappy family life, with an abusive father (Michael Kelly) and sick mother, cause him to become more and more alienated and angry with the world; even more so when Matt starts spending more time with his long-time highschool crush Casey (Ashley Hinshaw). Eventually, Andrew's obsession with his superpowers will take a dangerous turn.
Chronicle is a mix-and-match of geek-friendly properties; its premise of superpowers takes inspiration from any number of comicbook superheroes, and its angst-filled teenagers recalls the seminal anime film Akira. The results are pretty entertaining, albeit not entirely original - the climax especially is a little too similar in execution to Akira. Yet director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max Landis deserve credit for combining all this with the found-footage format (more so considering this is Trank's directorial debut). Their film pays uncommon attention to its characterization, grounding it in likable and sympathetic characters, and the found-footage nature gives it an immediacy and realism that offsets the outlandish story.
It's also a lot of fun watching Matt, Steve and Andrew playing with their telekinetic powers, pulling juvenile pranks on strangers. And yet their behaviour is only slightly dickish; what the story makes clear is that all three are basically good kids, and that their eventual conflict is a tragedy in the classical Shakespearean sense. The two more popular and self-assured of the trio do their best to be friends with Andrew, who in turn tries hard to fit in - it's a combination of Matt's and Steve's occasional self-absorption, Andrew's fragile emotional state, and plain bad luck, that leads to disaster. None of this would've been quite so effective if the early scenes hadn't established all three characters so well - albeit, I was somewhat disappointed when one of them gets written out of the film at the halfway mark, since he was the most fun.
If you, like me, are perennially worried about found-footage-movie-induced motion sickness, you'll be glad to know that this one employs a clever conceit that avoids the problem. Andrew is the one obsessed with videoing everything everywhere he goes, and when he develops telekinesis, he uses it to levitate his camera so that it follows him constantly, thus allowing for smooth tracking shots. Yet the film's POV isn't limited solely to Andrew's camera; occasionally there's a second cameraperson in Casey (whose rationale is that she's into video-blogging), and at times it switches to security cameras, TV news, and even some random person's handphone camera. But towards the explosive, action-packed climax - where everyone is too, shall we say, preoccupied to do any filming - the movie's attempts to keep a camera, any camera, on the action start to feel contrived.
I also think I would've enjoyed the movie more if it weren't for Alex Russell. He's the weakest of the ensemble trio - Michael B. Jordan is funny and likable, Dane DeHaan effectively portrays Andrew's angst and anger, but Russell is kinda flat. His Matt isn't very interesting, either as performed or as written; his character has a penchant for reading and quoting famous philosophers that doesn't have any bearing on the story. (You'd think it would've taught him more about what to do with superpowers.) Casey is another wasted character, seemingly there for the sole reason of providing another camera POV. But Trank, Landis and DeHaan do great with the character of Andrew; there's a chilling moment when he uses his powers on a spider, and another in which his father visits him at the hospital that's simply heartbreaking.
Still, this strikes me as a film full of potential not fully realised. I was all ready to write a post about how human creativity is derivative by nature. There is no one on earth who felt compelled to create something out of nothing who wasn't influenced by the creations of others, and all great artists acknowledge this. (In fact, I'd argue that the very purpose of art is to self-perpetuate; when we say a work of art is "inspiring", it means it made you want to make art of your own. But this isn't that post I wanted to write.) There's no reason why a marriage of Akira, comicbook superhero and the found-footage format couldn't have resulted in something truly original. Chronicle tries hard and gets a lot right, but towards the end I got the nagging feeling that I'd seen all this before. Still, I was expecting something awesome and got something merely good, and there ain't a thing wrong with that.
NEXT REVIEW: Haywire
Expectations: ooh, looks good