Exhausted by the abundance of superhero movies? Tired of the shameless way in which filmmakers use the Blair Witch-inspired found-footage camcorder faux-documentary style in a desperate attempt to cover up their minimalist budgets? Well, then Chronicle probably sounds like a nightmare come true. A found-footage superhero film may have looked like an original idea on paper, but it was probably still one step too far for some people. Which is a shame, really, as it’s actually pretty damn good.
The story follows three average teenagers living in Seattle. Andrew is an outcast, scarred by a torturous home life – an alcoholic father and a mother dying of cancer – bullied at school, and left just documenting his own lonely life via camcorder. His considerably more outgoing older cousin Matt doesn’t have a great deal in common with him, but tries his best to get him out of his funk – deciding that getting Andrew laid would probably be a good step in the right direction. Then there’s Steve, one of the most popular boys in school – he’s charming, he’s cool, and he has even less in common with the Andrew. Yet when Steve and Matt decide to leave the party and go exploring a strange cave – which appears to have been made by something impacting the ground – they decide to take Andrew along to document the whole thing.
After the trip to the cave they soon find that they have developed some kind of telekinetic powers. Slight, to begin with – they can alter the path of a ball, or pick up pieces of Lego – but soon, with practice, they find that they can do far more. The trouble is that, as their powers become greater, they start to diverge in what they would like to do with them: Matt is cautious, and Steve just wants to have fun, but Andrew finds that he can’t help but let his repressed anger get the better of him – and he has so very much anger.
Chronicle is a superb little alternative superhero movie which benefits greatly from a minimalistic story and attentive character development within. The story may be little more than what you would expect from an episode of the teen pre-Superman show Smallville – only thankfully considerably darker – but the style is much more reminiscent of M. Night Shyamalan’s own alternative superhero movie from back in 2000, Unbreakable. As things progress, everything goes a little Stealth (you know, that poorly-received but surprisingly fun little AI-gone-rogue warplane actioner – there are a shocking number of parallels between the plots to that and Chronicle) before kicking distictly into Akira-overdrive for the final act.
Indeed the co-writer and director Josh Trank fully acknowledges the inspirations behind his ideas (found in the likes of not only Akira, but also the similarly-themed Carrie and The Fury), blending them all into an unusual coming-of-age drama masquerading as a superhero movie and instilled with undeniable horror elements.
Even if you haven’t see any of these movies – and can’t quite picture the result of this blend of ingredients – it doesn’t much matter, the important thing is that the comparisons are all meant as compliments. Chronicle basically takes some great elements from a number of other good movies and gels them all together into a potent mix which feels both fresh and significant.
Unlike so many other superhero movies out there – and found-footage films too – the filmmakers have also chosen to concentrate on establishing the core characters here, morphing them into people that you actually care about. You get to know the trio so well, following them on every step of their journey and development, that when things start to go awry, you genuinely feel the impact: the consequences.
Choosing largely unknown newcomers was a wise decision too, as there are simply no pre-conceptions when it comes to their characterisations. You feel sorry for Dane DeHaan’s tortured Andrew – his abusive home life only exacerbated by the bullying violence he finds both on his streets and in his school – you think Alex Russell’s older cousin, Matt, is a bit of a pretentious jerk, prone to quoting philosophers far too often (surely everybody knew somebody at University who did this?!), and you can’t help but be charmed by Michael B. Jordan’s school-president-in-the-running, Steve, a likeable, affable, charming and successful chap who is effortlessly cool but also far from precious about it.
Welcome and very capable support comes from the lovely Ashley Hinshaw (who will be risking all front-lining in the porn-industry flick About Cherry next) and Michael Shaw (who you might recognise from The Adjustment Bureau, Law Abiding Citizen or Fair Game) as Matt’s love-hate interest, and Andrew’s abusive alcoholic dad, respectively.
The characters are easy to relate to; the performances are raw and natural, and the superhero storyline is grounded in a reality which we are all familiar with – teenage students growing up, discovering their limits, and discovering what they are actually capable of. Gaining tension from the dark and brooding horror undertones which bubble up to the fore during the shocking climax, the only thing that is really left to question is – just how well do the superhero elements stand up.
After all, in an age where the ‘spectacular’ Spiderman is getting a second reboot and a fourth run around the block, audiences have understandably come to expect something super in superhero movies. Often when filmmakers attempt to craft a fairly low budget ‘superhero’ film – for example, the engaging and underrated 2009 film Push, with Chris Evans and Dakota Fanning – the end result doesn’t go down too well at the Box Office. Even Shyamalan’s Unbreakable didn’t fare too well on its theatrical run, only really making a noteworthy profit on home formats.
Working with a shoestring budget – shot more in Cape Town, South Africa than Vancouver, Canada as a result – the director Josh Track actually manages to fashion a remarkably effective superhero vibe in Chronicle without the need for too many grand set-pieces (saving the majority for the final act). Initially, whilst the trio’s powers are evolving, the effects are minimal and easily improvised; later, when they discover flight, wire rigs and competent green screen visual effects are utilised to convince you of their abilities. Indeed, the sense of speed and turbulent wind created not just visually, but through the excellent sound design of the soundtrack, only enhance the in-flight sensation. There are only a few moments – mainly in the big climax – which come across as a bit dodgy. Ironically, when one of the characters starts tossing people around like they are rag-dolls, the effect is surprisingly well managed; it’s only when they attempt the same thing with cars, at the end, that the cracks start to show.
It’s in this respect, however, that the found footage effect actually comes in handy. You know that bit about covering up a movie’s budget? Well, used cleverly, it can actually make a low budget movie into a Big Screen contender – which is exactly what they’ve done here. Almost the entire film is shot from the point-of-view of one of the character’s own portable video-diary cameras, and this considerably helps the look of the superpowers in action. Things don’t have to look perfect because, hey, they’re shot with a camcorder – so what do you expect? It’s a completely forgivable and frankly commendable trick in this instance. Of course the reasons why the whole thing is being shot with a camcorder get a bit contrived towards the end – would Andrew really be wielding a camera in the midst of all that chaos?! – but by that time you’re pretty invested in the movie and the characters, and it would be a little pedantic to quibble over the logic behind the found footage style at that stage.
So we’ve got decent debut performances and grounded characterisations – reluctant, flawed heroes who have heart and who you care about, and tragic villains who you can empathise with – we’ve got clever camera (and post-production effect) trickery to make the action more convincing; and a solid story to back up this striking cross-genre blend: a story which has very real consequences, and feels grounded in a situation we can all relate to. The end result really hits the spot. Funnily enough, in spite of the superhero saturation and found-footage overkill in movies these days, this unusual combination of the two has gone down surprisingly well with audiences across the globe – raking in almost ten times its minimalistic $15 Million budget and promoting the Studios to not only tip the director as first in line to do the planned Fantastic Four reboot (really?!) but also to do a sequel to this, his impressive debut. Even if there’s a chance he’ll just be thrown a lot of money to do a derivative, cash-cow, effects-driven sequel that forgets all about everything that made the first film such a strong debut, I’m still cautiously looking forward to it.
Theatrical Cut vs. Extended Edition
Chronicle comes to High Definition home formats – both here and across the pond – with the option to watch one of two versions of the movie. We have the 85-minute Theatrical Cut and the 90-minute long Extended Edition. The reality is that those who didn’t enjoy the Theatrical Cut aren’t going to be further persuaded by the longer version. Not one bit. Those who did enjoy it first time around will probably regard the Extended Edition as being a rather curious creature – not really better, per se, just a bit longer, with some scenes that should have probably just been left in first time around. The footage is not particularly graphic and doesn’t involve any more swearing, and a 90-minute runtime is pretty short as it is, so I’m not really sure why the film was trimmed in the first place. Fans of the film will be happy to get a longer version which they will probably want to watch as their default choice from now on, but nobody’s going to suddenly give this extra points or shift it from ‘very good’ into ‘masterpiece’ on the basis of 5 minutes of fairly unexceptional character beats and thirty seconds of action.
Now I’m assuming anybody who has read this far has already seen the film because there are going to be a few spoilers. If you want a scene-by-scene breakdown of the actual additions then read on:
There’s a single added moment during the first superpowers sequence, where they play ‘ball’ just that little bit longer. It makes no difference to anything, but they had no reason to take it out. Later, when Andrew and Steve are driving around, there’s a nice added moment where Steve relates his own tough home situation, starting off a minor background thread which continues through a couple of the other extra scenes. At the diner, the trio make fun of the waitress and goof about with their superpowers for a little longer – whilst their actions are inconsequential, the dialogue is appreciated, and, most interestingly, we get a nice little bit of camerawork as the camera (purportedly with Andrew filming) pans to focus on Matt, then on Steve in the reflection through the mirror, and then on Andrew in the mirror behind Matt’s head. Perhaps they cut this out because it looked too professional for a high school student to pull off?!
A further minor super-power scene gives rise to a shot that was used for the promotional posters, as Matt ‘takes off’ because he’s in a rush, and Steve and Andrew ponder whether or not they should follow suit and just use their powers to get around quicker. No idea why this was removed, other than perhaps because Matt’s take-off wearing a backpack makes him look a bit like the Rocketeer. The scene chatting on top of the building goes on a little longer this time around, as Steve further confides in Andrew about his home situation. They could have easily left this story strand in to add to the character development. In a shot which could be glimpsed in the theatrical trailer, but not the theatrical cut, we get a minor added moment where Matt turns the camera on a semi-naked Casey. It’s nothing particularly revealing, and is over before it even starts, but it’s a nice little moment which could have been left in, perhaps emphasising a different side to their relationship. Another interesting camera shot sees Andrew surveying the ‘crash site’, and we also get a tiny little bit where his dad leaves.
The final addition comes at the end, in a Matrix-ish moment where Andrew uses his powers to stop hundreds of bullets being fired at him by the cops all around. I think this definitely should have been left in; it’s a decent action moment.
All in all, there’s no clincher in here, just enough to say the Extended Edition is the cut that you should watch out of choice, but not quite enough to warrant a re-watch if you didn’t get along with the film first time around. And really nothing that should have been trimmed from a 12A/PG-13 film in the first place. Still, for those who enjoyed the movie, at least it gives you another reason to watch it again and see if you can pick up on all the little added touches.
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