Chronicle (2012) Review

Anybody who saw Sam Raimi’s Spiderman when it came out in 2002 would be hard-pressed to forget this line, spoken by Uncle Ben to Peter Parker: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  This line rings true in just about any superhero movie.  These gifted protagonists feel a sense of duty that comes with their powers and decide to defend the world against every evil that seems to pop up in their milieu.  Josh Trank’s Chronicle treats the subject matter a little differently.

In this case, there is no evil lurking behind a dark alley nor does great responsibility weigh down on the shoulders of our three protagonists.  Instead, the evil comes from within their special telekinetic abilities.  What starts out as unworldly fun for these high schoolers becomes something dangerous when one of them decides to use his powers for less than honorable purposes and he must be stopped before unleashing total destruction.  Despite all of the familiarities of the film’s format, Chronicle uses its premise and captivating story to rise above the typical “found footage” film while creating a high amount of tension, due to frenetic direction and engaging characters.

Although it can be traced to The Blair Witch Project (1999) and further back, the “found footage” craze in film started in 2008 with films like Cloverfield and Quarantine.  From this point, horror and sci-fi films alike have been inundated by movies wishing to employ this type filmmaking, and for good reason.  When compared to other sorts of movies, movies of the “found footage” variety are cheaper to produce, and if the people making the film are high-profile enough, making a profit is almost guaranteed.  As a result, studios have been green-lighting a number of projects of this style, giving rise to a new subgenre of sorts, with its own set of conventions.  Because of the style’s comparatively unique cinematography, many of the conventions lie within the camerawork.

Chronicle, thanks to its premise, transcends the typical “found footage” film because of its use of the cinematography.  Because our protagonists have been gifted with special telekinetic powers, the camera is able to visit places most other films cannot go.  Shots from the perspective of any of the characters as they are flying are exhilarating, to say the least.  Additionally, the film displays that it can effectively convey the “found footage” style without having the appearance of using a handheld camera.  In the tense final act, the handheld camera used throughout most of the film is abandoned in favor of a typical film camera.  Instead, the scenes, especially the final stand, frequently shift between this and other modes of footage, like phone cameras, security footage, and sights from helicopters aiming to fire.  These different methods of filming effectively keep the film within the contexts of the subgenre, but also separate it with original style.

Additionally, the cinematography works in an interesting way with the premise in telling the story.  Unlike other films of its kind, Chronicle is presented as a character study, focusing on protagonist Andrew Detmer as he transforms from someone powerless against his drunken father, the cancer consuming his mother, and his school bullies to someone who becomes mad with power, believing he has become an apex predator and must let nature take its violent course.  The premise of him gaining superpowers allows for the film to manipulate the cinematography in an interesting fashion.  With Andrew’s telekinetic powers, he frequently uses his mind to move the camera.  In many segments, Andrew lays on his bed as the camera looks down on him, panning from side to side.  In these scenes, his father’s angry voice rages in the background, but he remains stoic on his bed, learning to ignore his aggression.  These scenes also build tension, as we can sense Andrew moving closer to losing his rationality.

Without a doubt, the story is one of the best aspects of the film, both in its tone and in how the plot progression differs from superhero movies.  When compared with other superhero films, the tone of Chronicle is refreshingly pitch black.  Even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy can’t touch this film.  Of course, there are many light-hearted moments, like the group’s super-powered practical jokes and the talent show, but the film’s dark tone carries the film along to its final act, when Andrew’s madness reaches its apex.  It’s clear that Andrew struggles with handling an abusive father and his mother’s debilitating cancer, even after gaining his superpowers.  The emotions he exudes are palpable in every frame, all thanks to actor Dane DeHaan.  Even the film’s setting reinforces the film’s somber feeling.  The film takes place in Seattle, Washington, a city known for rain and cloudy days that take up most of the year.   In most outdoor scenes, there is barely any sunlight, and the clouds, both physical and metaphorical, weigh down on Andrew’s conscience.  Despite all of the troubles all superheroes experience, their eventual rise to the occasion is met with excitement and jubilee in the final battle and victory.

Additionally, Chronicle’s plot progression differs significantly from its counterparts.  In most superhero movies, the protagonist initially experiences a few minor struggles, but overcomes them easily until one comes along that reveals their fatal flaw.  Overcoming these faults is the primary struggle these characters face until the final showdown in the third act.  Chronicle does just about the exact opposite.  When Andrew receives his newfound abilities, there is no significant struggle that he must go through in order to display a development in character.  Not only does he not struggle with the darkness his mind leads him to, he seems perfectly content with letting it consume him, turning him into cold, intimidating psychopath.  He’s content with losing his sanity because it’s the only way he feels any power or control over his life.  Finally, by the third act, what he must face in the final showdown is the beast he’s created within himself, but he refuses to recognize it, even though he clearly realizes the damage he’s causing.  Rest assured, there is no happy ending to find for our anti-hero.  Technically, there is a happy ending, but it’s fairly hollow and sentimental.  All of these elements lead to a film whose freshness is wholly satisfying.

Along with engaging performances from all three protagonists and an unforgettably intense final act, Chronicle is the kind of superhero movie, if it could even broadly be referred to as that, which does not come around often, or even at all, so it must be cherished.  There is much talk of a sequel being produced, and I hope with all my heart that it doesn’t happen.  Chronicle, because of how it ends, should remain a stand-alone film.  The finality of the film’s resolution should be argument enough.  I have doubts about where they could go with a sequel.  This film’s focus on Andrew turns it into a wonderful character study, and since his death in the closing moments of the film leaves little room for him to appear in an impending sequel, putting the focus on anyone but him would cheapen the effect that this film has on the viewer.  Hopefully everyone responsible for a possible follow-up will see sense.  I give Chronicle a rating of 3.5 maple leaves out of 4.  Andrew, you, sadly, are no apex predator.  That title will always belong to members of the animal kingdom like my beloved orca.

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