Dan DeHaan, Michael B. Jordan, Alex Russell, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw
(20th Century Fox; US theatrical: 3 Feb 2012 (General release); UK theatrical: 3 Feb 2012 (General release); 2012)
Not since [REC] and its equally masterful sequel have we seen something like this. For most, the first person POV found footage film is a hit or miss proposition with more whiffs than winners in the mix. Starting with The Blair Witch Project (though there were other, less notorious examples before), fans have had to put up with lame devil worship (The Last Exorcism), equally bad living dead dynamics (The Zombie Diaries) and a host of hobbled concepts (insert name of least favorite example here). Rarely does it ever work, and when it does, it’s usually not something you want to see again. Still, filmmakers feel that, unlike a gimmick like 3D, found footage has no real cinematic shelf life. As long as it’s done correctly, it can still be a benefit to both the storytelling and its impact.
Enter Chronicle, the latest entry in the slight subgenre. Directed with unbelievable skill by Josh Trank and written by John Landis’ son Max, it’s the kind of movie where the power of “why?” can find no purchase. What exactly does this mean? Well, Chronicle tells the tale of three boys who discover an alien artifact deep underground. After coming in contact with it, they all gain superpowers. Initially, they use these abilities for fun. But eventually, one of them goes rogue (for very good reasons), leading to an inevitable showdown. The whole “why?” element is removed by some very smart decisions behind the scenes. Indeed, whenever the situations create a question as to ‘why’ something might be happening/is possible, Trank and Landis anticipate it - and answer it.
Thus we have a satisfying experience that tells a true story in a manner best built to serve the narrative. Sure, there’s a few flaws and a couple of complaints, but for the most part, Chronicle is the best found footage film since a Spanish TV reporter decided to cover the local fire department on their overnight shift. It gets so many things right that, perhaps, they should be pointed out. In fact, the five facets here can act like a primer for those contemplating the approach. As long as they can find a way to be new and novel while addressing these concerns, our high school hero triptych might just have some competition:
Finally, a Non-Horror Premise
For many found footage films, scares seem more important than story. As a matter of fact, ever since that miserable Blair Witch proved that people will pile in to experience fear through the eyes (or more correctly, the viewfinder) of another, it seems that all we get is dread, dread, and more dread. No comedies. No dramas. No alternatives to terror, Just intriguing premises undermined by the need to play by the macabre rules. With Chronicle, we have a comic book origin tale told via said cinematic gimmick - and it works. The reason why has as much to do with the internal issues addressed as well as a pure understanding of the approaches limits and liabilities.
Finally, a Valid Reason for the Camera…and for Keeping It
In the film, our main focus is a sad adolescent named Andrew. His mother is dying of some undisclosed disease (probably cancer). She is racked with pain and screams throughout the night for some relief - or some of the $750+ medicine the family can’t afford. Naturally, this makes Andrew’s dad a bit cranky, which he deals with via alcohol…and frequent bouts of beating up his son. So our hero has a camera - a crappy, old fashioned kind initially - set-up to record his dad’s abuse. Eventually this bullied boy learns the value in living behind the lens, and when the superpowers kick in, the need to record same for posterity. All legitimate. All feeling very authentic.
Finally, a Valid Reason for More Cinematic Angles
Unless all you want from your found footage film is a shaky, jittery piggyback ride on some pretend actor’s shoulder, there are definite artistic limits to the framing, composition and angles the style can afford. Enter - SPOILER ALERT - the free floating camera, an experiment on Andrew’s part that quickly becomes the adopted way our trio deals with every interaction. Instead of keeping the technology well in hand (where it can get in the way or get destroyed by accident), the guys use their telekinesis to keep shooting, even when circumstances make it impractical or impossible. There is also a female vlogger who captures some of what’s going on, as well as reference to the massive amount of surveillance and other undercover recording going on all around us. There’s even a nod to the eternal tourist in all of us with a cellphone. As a result, we get the best of both approaches - the direct POV and the more aesthetic turn.
Finally, a Valid and Believable Subplot
For the most part, the initial premise (witnessing an exorcism, interviewing ‘real’ vampires, stumbling upon a zombie uprising, witnessing a mega-monster attack on a large city) is all this type of movie has to offer. No real concrete characterization or undercurrent of additional intrigue. Here, we have an excellent side story dealing with Andrew, his horrid home life, his equally miserable social interactions, and his friends’ attempts to keep him from readily slipping over into ‘the dark side’ (read: using his powers for evil). It’s an amazingly effective counter-narrative, helping balance out all the F/X and comic book chaos. After all, who can’t relate to the rollercoaster ridiculousness that is…high school.
Finally, a Valid Need for a Sequel
MEGA SPOILER ALERT - at the end, Andrew has had enough and goes berserk. He beats up a bunch of local “douches” and commits many acts of violence and mayhem, all in an effort to get money to pay for his mom’s medication. His cousin, the far less enigmatic Matt, must try to reason with him as the two destroy most of downtown Seattle. As you watch the confrontation, you are immediately struck by how easily the sides are defined in classic four panel panache. Andrew is becoming the scarred and scary supervillain while Matt slowly takes the role of reluctant superhero. Toward the end, it looks like a mortally wounded good finally has vanquished evil. But then we see Matt healthy and flying around Tibet just a few days later. Clearly, there is some regenerative power here - and is the champion can survive his brush with death, so can…you get the idea - and the need for a sequel!