Chronicle (2012) / Fantasy-Action

MPAA rated PG-13 for violence, thematic material, language, sexual content and teen drinking
Running time: 84 min.

Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw, Bo Petersen
Director: Josh Trank
Screenplay: Max Landis
Review published February 5, 2012

chronicle 2012 superhero seattle space needleDirected by first-timer Josh Trank, this Max Landis (son of famous filmmaker John Landis) scripted story mostly follows the plight of Andrew Detmer (DeHaan, "In Treatment"), a troubled teen who is bullied at school, abused by his father (Kelly, The Adjustment Bureau) at home, and his mother (Petersen, The Lost Future) is suffering from a terminal illness that has put the family into a financial crisis.  His means of coping with it all involves the purchase of a camcorder to document everything going on, or not going on, in his life.  His only friend isn't a close one, and he isn't even a friend, but rather his cousin, Matt (Russell, Wasted on the Young), who can barely tolerate the socially awkward teen.  However, he has pity on his kin, enough to invite him along to one of the high school class's biggest parties, but rather than meet girls, the two cousins, and another friend named Steve (Jordan, Hardball), decide to spelunk down a mysterious hole in the ground they've discovered in the woods not far from the party. 

It is there they come across a strange crystalline object that would change their lives forever, giving each of the young men the ability to move things with their mind.  As the young men find new ways to use their telekinetic powers, they open many new doors they could only but dream of before.  However, as their powers grow, so too do their flaws, as their feeling of invincibility creates different effects on the boys, and not all of them are for the better.

Chronicle boasts no big stars to sell it, but like other 'reality' movies that try to give you the feeling like you're actually in on the action, this is a fact that bodes well in its favor.  It's not the most original idea for a movie, but in the already glutted genre of superhero films, at least it is a different enough take to distinguish itself against the big budget blockbusters.  It would be false to suggest that the entirety of Chronicle is seen through the lens of various cameras, as Trank does employ some traditionally staged back-and-forth conversations that could not have been filmed from it  A party scene later in the film contains a conversation between two characters with cameras (Yes, there is another character who just so happens to be doing her own videotaped self-examination . Couldn't they have worked in that this was a school project?),  neither of which are using them at the time, and there are cuts back and forth between them, or any other camera.  In the end, much like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield before it, the "found footage" premise is a gimmick, and one that it doesn't adhere to very well, though it's not completely detrimental to the movie as a whole.

At the same time, we see and know only that which the protagonists know, never really knowing the source of the mystery behind their powers, or the strange object that resides underground that gave them their superhuman abilities.  But it doesn't matter, as we've seen these stories enough times to know the scoop (we presume it is alien), and the when, where and why is something that isn't what the film is ultimately about, which is, what would presumably happen if teenagers came across great powers.  Great responsibility isn't really at the forefront of their minds, contrary to popular comic book mythos.  Unlike Peter Parker, their newfound powers lead them to be delinquents, hedonists, and bullies themselves.

The subject matter is often dark and far from cartoonish, though the film does manage to draw forth a good deal of humorous moments, particularly when the juveniles  use their powers to film their pranks to an unsuspecting public.  However, Matt, the mature one of the bunch, sees the need to keep their powers in check, for their own safety, as well as that of others, for fear they will take things too far to keep their way of life intact.  But with growing pains and lack of adult supervision, these boys get into more trouble than they can handle, while the inevitable struggle between Andrew and his angry father comes to a boil, a la Carrie.

Much of the film is set-up, and seems like it might not go anywhere in particular, but it does, in an action-packed finale that might remind some of the high-flying, building smashing, motor vehicle lobbing, metropolitan showdown between Superman and the Kryptonian villains in Superman II.  By this point, though the film is short and the development scant, we're invested enough in the characters' plights to care about the result of the cataclysmic battle between boys, cops, and the environs around them. The budget is relatively low for a superhero film, but the visuals, which blend seamlessly with the camcorder footage (reminiscent of the popular Nissan truck commercials featuring their vehicles doing unbelievable stunts), is quite impressive, particularly in the explosive final few scenes.  One key sequence involves a struggle at the top of Seattle's Space Needle that is truly harrowing, mostly because the setting feels all too real.

The down side to this ambitious film is that there is too much ground to cover that isn't given quite enough time on the screen to develop.  The most obvious example includes a story arc that has one of the characters take powers once thought cool and turn them into a deadly weapon.  We're given enough information to suggest that such a transformation could happen, but not quite enough to fully sell us that it would become so complete so quickly.  Only the bare minimum is explained in order to set up the story to where it eventually goes, and though the stage set is certainly impressive, it's not quite as harrowing or as tragic as it could have been with just a bit more care taken to make things realistic (as much as they can be in a film about alien artifacts and kids with superpowers, anyway).  A couple of the actors look like they should be old enough to have graduated college by now, rather than still in their senior years of high school.

In the end, the film isn't really so much about super powers so much as it is about the fragile state of mind and friendships we all have during our teenage years, where even having the ability to do almost anything doesn't make it any easier to gain love, acceptance, or save the life of a loved one.  Echoes of Columbine give a subconscious effect that has us wonder just how dangerous superhuman powers would be in the hands and minds of the wrong teens, as the powerless suddenly turn into the powerful, angry at the world and no longer afraid to lash out.

 Qwipster's rating:

©2012 Vince Leo