Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chronicle (2012)

The "found footage" style of filmmaking has long been associated with the horror genre. Scary movies pretty much invented and codified the style. "Found footage" movies aren't completely exclusive to horror, though, as science fiction has occasionally dipped its toes into the pool as well. Cloverfield, with its "man on the street" approach to the classic concept of a giant monster rampaging through an urban metropolis, is perhaps the most famous example. But although they're rare, it's not the only one, thanks to the recent release of Chronicle. Taking a coming-of-age tale and adding a dash of superpowers, Chronicle is a damn fine movie that's a lot more fun that I initially anticipated it would be.

Meet Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a meek, socially inept teenager who's recently taken to videotaping his day-to-day activities as a means of distancing himself from the hell that is his life. He's picked on at school, and his alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) routinely beats him while his cancer-stricken mother (Bo Peterson) wastes away on her deathbed.

His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who brings Andrew along to a rave on the outskirts of town to help bring him out of his shell. The rave isn't as fun for Andrew as it is for everyone else, but the evening gets a lot more interesting when popular classmate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) asks Andrew to bring his camera to document something he and Matt have found out in the nearby woods.

Steve and Matt lead Andrew to a bizarre hole dug into the ground. Curiosity gets the best of them, and they climb down into the hole to investigate it. They end up discovering a giant, glowing crystal at the end of a deep tunnel. The object quickly changes color and the three are stricken with pain and nosebleeds before something shuts the camera off.

Weeks pass, and the trio have discovered that the exposure to the object they'd found has given them telekinetic abilities. As they get a handle on their new powers, they start out simply having fun and playing practical jokes on unsuspecting people. Things take a dark turn, however, when Andrew begins showing evidence of sociopathic tendencies. It begins when he callously causes a car wreck that puts a man in the hospital. A series of personal tragedies and humiliating incidents that follow soon thereafter begin taking a further toll on Andrew's already fragile psyche. His powers developing to frightening levels, Andrew begins to view himself as an "apex predator" sitting atop the human race.

I didn't really expect a whole lot out of Chronicle when I first stepped into the theater. I wasn't expecting the worst, but I wasn't anticipating anything special either. I didn't think it would be anything more than just an "okay" movie. But it turns out that Chronicle was actually really good. It was a lot better than I thought it would be. I'm actually amazed at just how much fun the movie was. The whole "bullied kid uses supernatural powers for their own gain" thing has been done before, but Chronicle does it well.

Sitting in the director's chair is Josh Trank, a rookie filmmaker making his feature film debut. It's a heck of a debut, because Trank definitely shows he's got some style. Though he does cheat a little by using multiple cameras in the same scene, it still works. That "cheating," combined with the characters using their powers to move their own camera around independently, brought a more cinematic vibe to the usual "found footage" proceedings. This allows Trank to bring a very unique feel to the movie, one that makes it more engaging than it otherwise could have been. (Then again, if you're going to have the camera off by itself and filming everyone from a weird angle, why not just make a regular movie?)

The script, penned by Max Landis, is also really good. While the story is nothing new, Landis crafts it in such a way that it's never boring. Though there's no denying that Chronicle has prominent elements of sci-fi and action, Landis also uses the opportunity to study just how teenagers would act if they ended up with superpowers. They wouldn't immediately run out and become Spider-Man; they'd play pranks, get back at bullies, use their powers to pick up girls. Basically, they'd have a good time.

But then you have somebody like the character Andrew, who keeps getting pushed and pushed until he snaps and pushes back. Dozens of movies have told similar stories in the past, but Landis has crafted Chronicle in such a way that makes it a compelling watch. It's an "absolute power corrupts absolutely" tale that's heart-wrenching because of how much Landis makes you care about Andrew and the other characters. He actually makes you feel genuine concern for them. It goes beyond a simple superhero origin story and becomes one about a young man whose friends must deal with the developing psychosis caused by what some would see as a gift.

Chronicle is a captivating watch not just because of its direction and writing, but due also to the strong performances from its three primary actors. The characters aren't really that memorable individually, but the three actors really commit themselves to their parts anyway. For example, Alex Russell's character isn't really all that interesting from a superficial standpoint, occasionally spouting off quotes from philosophers to try sounding smart as he flirts with some girl who herself Is continually videotaping everything. But Russell is likable and trying his hardest to make an impression, and that goes a long way.

Michael B. Jordan, meanwhile, puts forth a very fun performance. He's fun, enjoyable, entertaining, and convincing. He's very enthusiastic to the point that it's almost infectious, so much so that a rather terrible incident that has a negative impact on Jordan's character actually takes a lot of the wind out of the movie. I don't want to spoil it, but it shows how good Jordan is.

And we can't go without mentioning Dane DeHaan, whose performance I thought was great. He remains utterly sympathetic throughout the whole movie, even as his character edges closer and closer to insanity. Even as he rampages through Seattle (well, Cape Town doubling for Seattle, but that's beside the point), DeHaan's performance makes you feel so bad for him because this is where all the crap he's gone through has pushed him to. DeHaan makes it believable, playing the role with conviction and intensity. He's damn good, and a lesser performance could have hurt the whole movie.

The other day, I read a review of Chronicle that stated, "Upon closer inspection, Chronicle also isn't really about anything; there is no greater theme to the tale, no life lessons to be learned, and no secrets revealed regarding where that orb that granted the boys their powers came from — just the terrible tragedy of too much power in the hands of young people who aren't emotionally equipped to handle it." I think that quote fits. That really sums up the whole movie. And Chronicle doesn't really even need to be anything more than that, either. It's effective, exciting, and entertaining. The honest truth in any event is that while Chronicle isn't a perfect movie, it's good enough to be a fun ride for an hour and a half. So I'm going to give the movie three and a half stars and my personal approval.

Final Rating: ***½

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