With the advent of Netflix and OnDemand, it takes a really strong recommendation to get me to actually schlep to a movie theater and pay $15 to see a movie. 2012’s Chronicle was one of those cases. When it hit theaters last year, a friend of mine called it “The Blair Witch Project of superhero movies.” Now, I’m not averse to the found footage genre: District 9 and End of Watch are two of my favorite movies in recent years. However, I didn’t see those movies because they were found footage, but because they had intriguing premises. That’s where my friend turned me off Chronicle: I had no interest in sitting through a predictable superhero movie where the hero discovers his powers and then uses them to defeat a villain (and on and on—you know the drill), while also dealing with constant shaky-cam and spastic editing. I did finally see Chronicle via OnDemand, and I can confidently report: this is a groundbreaking, must see movie that you should move to the top of your entertainment to-do list.
Chronicle is not a superhero movie, but a sci-fi character study, and that’s part of what makes it so great. Directed by first-timer Josh Trank from an original screenplay by Trank and Max Landis, the movie inserts us into the everyday life of Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a teenager from suburban Seattle whose only real friend is his video camera. Bullied in school and beaten by his alcoholic father, Andrew uses his camera to try and detach himself from the pain and psychological trauma he experiences. The only person who crosses this boundary is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), also a student, who along with class president Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) enlists Andrew to use his camera to document something strange they have found in the woods.
Here is where the story takes a sharp left turn: after an intense encounter with a mysterious object, all three boys develop telekinesis, the ability to move and manipulate objects with their minds. Bound by their secret and similar powers, Andrew, Michael and Steve become fast friends, giving Andrew the first real human connection he can remember. But his damaged psyche still struggles to grapple with the boys’ number one rule: you can’t use your powers to hurt anyone.
The unique nature of the characters’ mutual powers dovetails brilliantly with the movei’s found footage style. By allowing Andrew and his friends to use their minds to move the camera without holding it, the movie cleverly bypasses several of the limitations of the found footage genre, especially the overuse of shaky-cam and the reliance on a limited repertoire of camera angles. I can guarantee you’ve never seen a found footage movie that looks as good as Chronicle. Since no one has to be behind the camera, it lets us fly though the air and spin around the room while also showing all three lead characters at the same time.
Freeing up all three leads allows Chronicle to display the considerable acting chops of DeHaan in particular. His deep-set eyes and hollow expression convey the dramatic effect that psychological torment has had on Alex, in a performance that does not for a moment feel tacky or comic book-y. When things are going better for Alex we believe it, but DeHaan still allows some scars to show through his smiles. He also looks like a teenager, which unfortunately cannot be said about Alex Russel (who plays Matt) and some of the other actors in the movie. Such a genuine performance enhances the believability of the found footage conceit: Alex comes across as a person making YouTube videos of himself rather than a professional actor playing a role.
Adding to Chronicle’s realism are its exceptional visual effects, which are even more astounding considering the movies paltry $12 million budget. Since found footage films try to pass as actual video diaries, bad CGI would have immediately derailed the film’s attempt at veracity. Thankfully, director Josh Trank lays the effects subtly in the background; if some shots weren’t so unbelievable you would never know they were done with digital effects. Even the flying shots in this movie rival anything in the latest Superman or Spider-Man movies, with budgets more than ten times higher than Chronicle’s. Going forward, this movie should serve as a model for how to use visual effects to make a story stronger, rather than the other way around.
At its core, Chronicle is really about the fine line between being a super hero or a super villain. When the movie begins, Andrew seems a lot more likely to perpetrate a mass murder at his school than to gain superpowers. Ironically, giving him the power to fulfill his violent desires staves off those same desires through the introduction of friendship. In the end, whether Alex’s disturbed psyche or newfound friendship wins out is fascinating to watch. Serious kudos to screenwriter Max Landis and Trank for coming up with such a fascinating original story and for executing it so well. I only wish I could have seen it in all its glory on the silver screen.
Benjamin Neumann is a senior in the History Department.