Directed by Josh Trank
Screenplay by Max Landis
Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Alex Russell, Dane DeHaan
How long is Chronicle? 83 minutes.
What is Chronicle rated? PG-13 for intense action and violence, thematic material, some language, sexual content and teen drinking.
Not terribly original, but handled just right.
Certainly, surprise is the least of tragedy. Walking into the amphitheater to experience Oedipus Rex, most Greeks in attendance knew the tale. The preamble of Romeo and Juliet says the pair of star-crossed lovers meet a grisly fate. Even if you haven’t seen it, you know in your heart that Old Yeller doesn’t close with the dog barking in joy at a year’s supply of Alpo.
No, in tragedy it’s fine to know the outcome; it doesn’t matter as much as the experience itself. As long as we believe in the pain of the players, and the inevitability of their doom, all is well.
Chronicle, the film coming to theaters this Super Bowl weekend from director Josh Trank and screenwriter Max (my Dad directed The Three Amigos) Landis, is most certainly a tragedy. If the trailers are coy about this, the first scene isn’t: Andrew (Dane DeHaan) runs his new camera as his abusive father (Michael Kelly) bangs on his door before school. His father yelling, Andrew explains that he’s recording this as a means of defense brought on by past events; we know quickly that this isn’t going to be the happiest of films.
As Andrew continues to film his daily life, he grows more comfortable behind the lens than in front, and explains as much to his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) neatly justifying the “found footage” conceit that the picture relies upon (a conceit that mostly works, but more on that soon). For a while we just see the terrible highlight reel of Andrew’s day to day: dying mom, aggressive bullies, and women thinking he’s creepy. But then, Matt brings Andy to the world’s most overproduced barn party and they explore a hole in the ground with popular jock Steve (Michael B. Jordan), and everything kicks into a different gear.
A bizarre, crystalline, alien thing the three encounter in the hole (don’t question how or why) grants them psychic abilities, instantly turning this into a superhero affair. The trio form bonds of friendship and codes of conduct while learning to pull pranks and fly through the sky with their minds in a jocular sequence that positions them as potential candidates for Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Your spirits are raised and this seems almost like a Tim Kring show; all super powered fun, no stupid licensing to get in the way! Combined with the hand-held camera gimmick, now floated on psychic strings for more complex cinematography, it’s almost a documentary of a superhero’s origin story!
Except as mentioned, and as with all superheroes if you analyze them enough, this is a tragedy. Andrew is usually the one holding the camera, and as Matt points out, the view from the lens puts distance between him and humanity. Events, and of course, his father, remind both him and the audience of this situation and you’ll quickly realize this isn’t a hero’s story. This is the tale of a supervillain.
This is the true heart of Chronicle: Observing as Andrew and friends gain their power and he proceeds to destroy himself in an inevitable fall from grace, forcing us to watch in rapt horror as we go along for the ride. Once you realize “troubled kid” and “psychic powers” don’t mix – if you’ve seen Carrie or Akira you know why – and you’ll know how the film is going to end barring some Shyamalan twist that the filmmakers wisely avoid. Events simply play out in the inevitably tragic, though spectacular and gripping, fashion that they do.
It’s fundamentally top-notch B-movie entertainment; a simple morality play with super powers that uses its various conceits well. The performances from the young and mostly unknown leads are strong, especially from DeHaan, who anchors the film with palpable angst and rage. Trank’s direction is quite confident for a director’s Feature debut, doing quite a bit with what was obviously a limited budget. Hell, that, and the amazing Battle in Seattle sequence are enough to make him one to watch out for (it seems Fox already is ).
Yet, there are issues, great and small. The “found footage” conceit breaks down a bit when different cameras are used and by the end it becomes a bit contrived. The dialogue also isn’t much to write home about; it’s functional and mostly natural, but there’s little soul or wit to be found. It mostly just comes off like many of the ancillary characters: stock and one note. Oh, and the special effects, though mostly solid, peek through enough to be distracting, especially early on when the Telekinetic Kids You Know are first experimenting.
There’s also the fact that the entire third act pretty much becomes Tetsuo’s rampage from Akira for an extended period, forever removing doubt that the filmmakers have seen Otomo’s Opus of ’88. Not that big of a deal in the long run, since it works, but for those noticing the obvious Andrew/Tetsuo parallels already, it does drain some of the novelty out of the piece. Still, considering that film is currently on hiatus, Chronicle makes one of the best arguments to keep it that way: it does the story better than it ever could.
Actually, “American Akira that works” is probably the best way to describe Chronicle overall. If viewed as an adaptation, it strips out all the excessive politics and philosophy and all the truly bizarre imagery that make the story “foreign”, and just tells the leaner tale of “teen angst in the medium of psychic destruction” through familiar super hero and high school archetypes. But with no bigger ideas at play, it’s hard to be disappointed by what you get. Such a simplification completely works on its own, and if the “actual” adaptation gets made, it will feel woefully redundant now. In the end, the Akira comparison is just a quick description for those familiar with the similar work; Chronicle maintains its own identity quite capably.
So if you want to try a telekinetic tragedy for today’s times, your only real option, at least for now, is Chronicle. It may be a bit predictable and a bit clichéd, but so is Oedipus, that doesn’t make either any less engaging or heart rending by the end.
Besides, Oedipus Rex never had psychic street fights! Which . . . actually, has any American film ever had that? No? Oh well, then you should probably see Chronicle for that if nothing else then, shouldn’t you?