Chronicle takes not just one, but two familiar genres and turns them both on their heads in one of the most startlingly original low-fi blockbusters of the year.
The “found footage” genre and superhero movies have a great deal in common. In the last decade, they’ve both proven to be a reliably crowd-pleasing way to ensure a summer blockbuster. Similarly, both types of films have started to feel a little bit played out of late, especially when Paranormal Activity and Spider-man are releasing their fourth films in the respective franchises this year. So it was really no surprise that the most original film in either genre this year is a combination of the two.
High school student Andrew (Dane DeHaan), who lives with his abusive father and dying mother, is a social outcast, only able to relate to the outside world via the barrier of a camera. Recording everything he sees, he even begins to irritate his only true friend, cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who only just tolerates him. When the pair discover a strange glowing artifact with the school’s superstar Steve (Michael B. Jordan), all three are knocked out, only to find themselves imbued with telekinetic powers. As their powers grow, they begin to change the way they look at the world, especially Andrew who becomes increasingly isolated, powerful and dangerous.
With director Josh Trank‘s debut film Chronicle, he displays an innate understanding not just of the two genres he straddles, but of the way that ubiquitous connectivity and surveillance has made all of us heroes of our own stories. As a second camera joins them, in the form of the spunky young Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw) we are able to gain a perspective from outside the group, and the watcher becomes the watched. This all builds to a spectacular climax, one that belies the otherwise lo-fi look of the film, where every angle of the action is covered thanks to street cameras, media and especially the devices of the onlookers. It’s not just big brother watching. Particularly impressive is that this was all done for a relatively low budget of $15 million, and it is no wonder that the studios are already in talks for Trank to take over their large franchises.
This would all fall apart, of course, were it not for the performances and chemistry between the leads. In reality, two jocks and a geek would only spend this much time together under duress or if a beating was involved, and the speed at which their bond forms never feels anything less than natural. DeHaan in particular does a remarkable job transitioning from the quiet outlier to a figure of fear, as we witness the origin story of a villain. Of course, there is the corresponding rise of a hero, and this comes from unexpected places with spectacular results. By the same token, some of the more impressive special effects sequences, including one in which the gang first learns to fly, is more about the issues they are facing together than it is about showing off the trickery.
Chronicle may not have invented either genre it dabbles with, but it certainly redefines them for a new generation. Told in the fractured narrative of intentionally “cobbled together” editing, Trank’s tale never hands you all the information at once, slowly pulling you into its mystery and surprising to the last. For this reason, Chronicle may have created a genre of its own, one that is a found footage mystery that also happens to be about meta-humans. Chronicle is not simply a new dab of paint, but a whole new canvas.
Chronicle is released in Australia on 2 February 2012 from Fox.