Silver Screen: Chronicle ****
Twenty-six-year-old director Josh Trank and writer Sam Landis (son of John Landis) make a strong first impression with their debut feature, Chronicle. It could fairly be described as yet another superhero movie and yet another entry in the faux-found-footage genre, but Trank and Landis manage to find some new angles of approach and a solid emotional core.
Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is a high-school loner with a rough home life. His mother is dying of a respiratory disease, and the strain on the family has turned his father (Michael Kelly) into an depressed, abusive alcoholic. Andrew buys a video camera to record his father's outbursts to use as proof of his rages, but he winds up becoming obsessed with recording everything, including a random keg party in the woods that turns weird. Andrew, his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), and popular kid Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find a cave that leads them to a mysterious glowing object. The encounter leaves the trio with telekinetic powers that strengthen as they practice them. It begins with minor manipulation of random objects and grows into the ability to levitate, to move cars-- and much more.
What do three relatively average kids do when they discover they have superhuman abilities? They horse around, of course. Andrew records them stretching the limits of their newfound capabilities and playing Jackass-style pranks. The next obvious step is to impress girls, which Steve coaxes Andrew into doing at a school talent show. But when the pressures of high school as well as a drastically worsening situation with his parents pushes Andrew into desperate circumstances, as well as an increasingly dark mental state, the boys learn that with great power comes great responsibility.
There aren't a lot of novel ideas in Chronicle, but the execution is certainly distinctive. It bespeaks the movie's dedication to its character-driven approach that while the central plot arc goes exactly as expected, the movie is consistently surprising. The story itself is dubiously similar to that of the Japanese classic Akira, though the dominating motif is not shiny superhero action but rather the ominous windup of a horror movie.
The found-footage gimmick is what grants Chronicle an intimacy rarely afforded to superhero flicks, which tend to be glossy even in their allegedly grittiest incarnations (Watchmen, The Dark Knight), and that pretty much always favor size and spectacle over subtlety. But the home-video footage brings the action down to a personal level, which not only makes the backstory more involving but, perhaps most importantly, gives the climax a surprising scale that is every bit as awe-inspiring as a far more expensive Michael Bay extravaganza.
Granted, Trank and Landis sometimes strain to maintain said gimmick at times, particularly when they introduce a romantic foil for Matt who just happens to be a similarly camera-crazed video-blogger. Landis attempts to justify this with a little pontificating about the effect of the camera on both the viewer and the operator, but it comes off as dimestore philosophy-- which fits in unfortunately well with Matt's general pseudo-academic blathering. Ultimately these additional shots from the second camera add very little to the plot while failing to generate any more interest in Matt, who is easily the film's most underdeveloped character.
There's a lot more good than bad, though, and in fact one of Chronicle's primary virtues can be read as an omission. Never once does one of our three leads even so much as mention the word "superhero" or the existence of the comic books and blockbuster movies that undeniably inspired the film. The argument could be made that this is implausible, even distracting, but I would contest it's one of the film's defining qualities. By not having the characters acknowledge the fictional predecessors to their "real" discovery, Landis and Trank keep Chronicle from becoming yet another self-aware culture pastiche where everyone takes their cues from preexisting story tropes. Chronicle attempts to engage on an emotional level rather than become yet another meta-commentary on genre conventions-- think Scream, or more notably Kick-ass-- a kind of entertainment that is itself somewhat ironically becoming a subgenre, and an incredibly limited one at that.
Contemporary viewers, particularly Chronicle's younger and nerdier target demographic, have increasingly come to conceive of their personalities as amalgamations of their favorite products and entertainments, to define themselves as viewers. Philosophically, that's not entirely inaccurate, but it also presents a post-modern dilemma: If our entertainments must constantly acknowledge our presence as the audience, yet we as the audience significantly identify as composites of those very entertainments, we become reflections of ourselves, as in some disorienting funhouse hall of mirrors. It's this conundrum (along with pure avarice from the bottom-line-driven film industry) that has reduced mainstream American cinema to an endless series of adaptations, remakes, reboots, and retreads. Our culture is so obsessed with stories that we can barely even attempt to create new ones. At the very least, don't we owe the moviegoing public of 2040 a few good tales for them to remake?
To put it another (nerdier) way: How different would Spider-man have turned out if in 1962 Stan Lee felt obligated by some arbitrary sense of verisimilitude to have a young Peter Parker, recently bitten by a radioactive spider, base his actions and self-conception on what he learned by reading Superman comics? Chronicle may be an undeniable mashup-- superhero Cloverfield!-- but its avoidance of the geek echo chamber feels as liberating as taking flight.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.