The ‘found footage’ genre has made steady progress in Hollywood since The Blair Witch Project burst through the barrier of success in 1999. JJ Abrams took it a step further by adding Hollywood special effects in his viral hit Cloverfield and this brings us neatly, via the Paranormal Activity series to Chronicle. Written by Max Landis, the son of 80s icon John Landis and directed by original concept creator Josh Trank, Chronicle is both a satisfying entry in the ‘found footage’ genre, but also an incredibly bold take on a superhero origin story, a science fiction morality tale and a disturbed teenage coming-of-age drama. Like many ‘found footage’ films it has a low budget of only $15m, and combines the reality of a documentary with the glossy sheen of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) lives the life of an outsider. Bullied at home by an abusive father and ostracised at school for not being ‘cool’ he retreats behind the lens of a camera, which he uses to chronicle his life. After being convinced by his cousin Matt (Alex Russell) to go to a local party. It’s here that he meets the high school president-to-be, Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) who convinces him to film him and Matt going into a recently discovered hole in the ground. After venturing inside they develop special telekinetic powers and the three boys begin to bond over their new secret, before it gets out of hand and the slow descent to corruption of power begins.
Chronicle is a bold film. It’s not afraid to both try and reinvent a lot of genres while simultaneously paying homage to them. There are scenes that are reminiscent of a slew of contemporary culture nods. It’s a bit like watching a modern, commercialised version of a Tarrantino film. There’s a stage scene that wouldn’t be out of place in Carrie. There’s nods to popular TV shows like Smallville and Heroes. There’s even a Star Wars, Darth Vader like fall from grace with only the lightsabers missing. But even with these constant nods to the genres that it is imitating, there’s still enough room for the film-makers to spend time introducing us to the main character of Andrew. Looking like an evil Leonardo DiCaprio in his youth, DeHaan is able to walk the same path of Lex Luthor, Carrie and Annakin Skywalker without ever stepping into melodrama. It’s a consummate performance that allows the whole, frankly ludicrous premise to work.
Trank and Landis Jr. really show their potential with a script that is at first engaging, entertaining and heart-felt before going completely bananas in the third act and really taking off the kid gloves to show what they’re capable of. Trank is able to get around the sometimes disappointing need to have someone manning the camera at all times, by showing Andrew manipulating the camera with his mind, which allows all protagonists to be on screen all the time. This works up until the final third of the film, where the need to discuss who is holding the camera is thrown out of the window in order to show some daring and sometimes over the top scenes in Chronicle‘s barn-storming finale. This is a disappointing and distracting problem that leaves a jarring note in proceedings.
In fact the escalation of action in the final act doesn’t sit well with the rest of the films slow descent. It feels rushed and at times frivolous, like the film-makers feel that they had built it up enough and that they only had 20 minutes to cram in everything else that they thought looked cool. With the pacing in the early going, they could easily have sacrificed the final fight and replace it with a more satisfying Carrie-like high school showdown. This would also have left them the big set-piece fights for a potential sequel. Still it’s tough to criticise a film that actually delivers so much more than you had any right to expect.
So while it treads familiar ground in its origin-story and homages to so many contemporary films and TV shows, Chronicle still finds a way to be fresh and interesting. Focusing on the idea that ‘absolute power corrupts absolutely,’ it takes the protagonists the majority of the film to really cut-loose with their powers. The newcomer cast are all good to excellent and the story is engaging and bold enough to really keep you entertained throughout.