Have you ever wondered about the importance of Uncle Ben in the story of Spider-Man? Have you ever looked at any of the X-Men and said, “You know what I’d do with that power?” Have you ever just wanted your superhero stories to be just a tad bit more like Akira? Chronicle is the film for you. The story isn’t all that original, especially for comic book aficionados, but the storytelling is absolutely great. The film had me completely caught in its telekinetic grip by its conclusion. No other superhero, or comic book-type, movie comes close to how well this was done. Captain America? Good. Kick-Ass? Good fun. Super? Dark fun. Chronicle? The new benchmark.
I say this despite having one huge problem with the film, and it’s my problem with found footage in general. Let’s admit that the found footage premise by this point is garbage. It allows for more grounded filming, it’s an excuse for purposely bad and obscuring camera angles, etc. We get that. But what made found footage worthwhile in the first place was The Blair Witch Project, which convinced half of its initial viewers that it was real. It’s considered real based on the fact that it came across as footage that was supposedly found. Chronicle doesn’t offer the viewer even a portion of that belief. The first act of the film involves the first camera’s being buried in the pit where the teens found the strange thing that granted them powers. How would one find that footage?
Of course, I also had a problem with Blair Witch‘s found footage taken as real just because I didn’t believe the government would allow that footage to be released if it were real. This is another case of that. But that’s the conceit of found footage. That and that it’s OK to pay money to see other people’s horrors exploited. Which I guess is something no one has any concerns about. Just look at the popularity of reality TV.
Like I mentioned before, Chronicle is a found footage story about three teens who stumble across a strange artifact found in a pit out in some random field near Seattle. They manage to escape following a cave-in, and they have all been granted telekinetic abilities. Our central characters consist of Steve, the most popular guy in school; Matt, the condescending intellectual; and Andrew, Matt’s cousin and high school outcast from a home consisting of an abusive alcoholic father and a mother slowly dying from a terminal illness. Andrew has no Uncle Ben – and he is positioned as our focal character.
The second act is innocent enough. The three teens find a deeper friendship over their shared abilities, and they initially use their powers for hijinks. In an homage to Zapped, they initially use their abilities to see the underwear of the girls at school. They throw baseballs at each other to see how to stop it. Heck, they discover they can protect themselves with a barrier by trying to stab forks into their hands. The hijinks reaches an end after Steve convinces Andrew to use his powers during a talent show to become popular. Andrew gets the chance to finally lose his virginity to a girl at school, but his power can’t stop the effects of too much alcohol. He becomes a laughing-stock at school.
From my review of Super, you probably gathered that I like stories involving psychological breaks and the fall of characters into darkness. Andrew already had enough emotional damage before nearly becoming popular (the most important thing to most high schoolers) and having it ripped away in an instant. The audience sees that from the beginning, when Andrew decides to psychologically distance himself by hiding behind his camera. (Kind of like Mark in Rent, now that I think about it.) When he knocks a truck off the road and doesn’t feel remorse during the otherwise upbeat second act, we start seeing a little more of it. Then he’s humiliated at the party. Then we see him casually pull a spider into its individual components in the blink of an eye. He’s going off the deep end.
And he remains sympathetic. Somehow we know that he is an otherwise good boy. He just is not emotionally equipped to handle anything. Super powers are generally regarded as ways to improve people’s lives, but this movie does a great job of saying that there’s no quick fix. Someone who has felt alone and scared his entire life will just explode when given an easy release. Teen angst makes things even worse.
Andrew’s full descent into super villainy comes from the most heartfelt place, too. In order to get the money for his mother’s medication, he kills a group of thugs and raids their wallets. We don’t know if they are actually killed, but by then he had already delivered a speech, to his camera, about his reading about the apex predator and how lions feel no remorse for killing weaker creatures in the food chain. I like to call that his Magneto speech. And even though things get even worse from that point, it’s difficult to not have even the smallest bit of sympathy for him.
Another thing I love about the film is that early on it establishes an external perspective. A schoolmate, Casey, is a video blogger who also carries around a camera through which the audience also sees. This becomes important during Matt’s swift courtship of her, since we see his dropping of the douchebag intellectualism through her eyes (well, slightly before that as he drunkenly exclaims to the camera how much he loves his cousin) during the same period when Andrew starts falling. From Casey’s perspective we see a hero emerge.
Part of me doesn’t like this dynamic, but it’s the most realistic one that could be written. Andrew is a poor, tortured outsider who is ultimately shown to be rotten when he disregards human life. We know it’s because of the drunken abuse and social seclusion, but he is still a villain. Meanwhile there’s Matt, who is affluent, acknowledged for being intelligent, and has a good home life. He is the hero. Again, I know that abuse is a cycle and tortured souls have a tough time escaping that, but I appreciate when media eschews the reinforcement in order to say that things can get better. The story is ultimately more powerful for keeping to reality in order to show why Peter Parker needed Uncle Ben and Aunt May for his evolution into the greatest superhero instead of becoming overwhelmed by his power and distanced from humanity like Tetsuo.
Much credit must go to the actors for making the characters seem as real possible and just acting like normal high school kids. Credit must also be given to the director for piecing it all together and making Chronicle work visually. Then there’s Max Landis, the writer of the film who worked with the director to dream up the whole thing. Max Landis is a major appreciator of comics and has truly shown through this film that he understands them perfectly. And if that doesn’t prove his love and understanding of comics, then his rant about The Death and Return of Superman should.
I cannot recommend this film enough. I even give it a pass for Steve’s fulfillment of the trope that black people have in these films. Maybe he can meet with X-Men: First Class‘ Darwin and discuss the importance of inspiring the good white characters to get their stuff together.