We’re currently in the midst of an era of superheroes when you look at big-budget Hollywood filmmaking. The Avengers is heading towards becoming one of the most lucrative movies of all time, and The Dark Knight Rises, releasing in July, could match it.
One of the side effects of this trend has been the rise of smaller movies that take much-different approaches to the genre. Most involve regular people without super powers who decide to take vigilante justice. We’ve also seen directors employ different styles to the material, particularly when the budget doesn’t allow for high-powered spectacles. A recent example is Josh Trank’s Chronicle, which uses the found-footage approach to show teenagers who inadvertently wind up with new abilities. The $12 million feature takes a slow-burn approach and focuses on character before chaos reigns in the end.
Released in the doldrums of February, this surprising film was successful without a great amount of fanfare. The tricky element up front is the found-footage approach, which can be off-putting to motion-sensitive viewers. It also can get silly if we’re not sure why characters are filming everything. This story addresses that, by making the lead character a loner who uses the camera to connect with the world. Even after he grows powerful, he opens up a bit yet still can’t really connect with anyone.
Trank and Co-writer Max Landis (son of John Landis) expand the story by using other cameras. During the final act, they employ cell-phone cameras, security footage, and other tricks to go beyond one guy’s perspective of the action. That keeps the story interesting and doesn’t create a feeling like we’re missing a lot of the great material that’s happening outside the frame.
The story focuses on Andrew (Dane DeHaan), a sad teen with a sick mom and an abusive father. His only friend is his cousin Matt (Alex Russell), who seems to like him but more out of pity than anything. Matt convinces Andrew to attend a party, which doesn’t go well for the quiet guy.
Later that night, he joins Matt and the super-popular Steve (Michael B. Jordan) to investigate a strange entity buried in the ground. Their experience with this device changes them forever and instills the trio with strange powers. They slowly realize that their brains can now transcend gravity and control physical objects. The guys start out with simple tasks and just keep upping the stakes. When they discover they can fly, there appears to be no end to their abilities.
The only physical side effect appears to be nose bleeds, but the emotional changes are more troublesome. While Matt and Steve are obsessed with their abilities, they feel more like an intriguing hobby than a complete pursuit. For a troubled guy like Matt, the potential danger from these powers is more severe and could lead to dire consequences.
One of the main reasons that Chronicle succeeds is the deliberate pacing that slowly builds the tension between the characters. Andrew isn’t a likable guy, but we understand why he’s become so isolated. Every school has someone like him lurking on the fringes, and watching this type of guy dealing with super powers is intriguing.
Trank and Landis also don’t take the material too seriously and show what teenagers would do if they discovered they had super powers. They play tricks on customers at a toy store, move an unsuspecting woman’s car in a parking lot, and hang out on skyscrapers above the city. The ultimate conflict between Matt and Andrew grows throughout the film. One of the best moments has Andrew performing with Steve in a talent show to show a few of his abilities. It looks like magic to the crowd, but it makes him an immediate superstar to the cool kids. Of course, this can only last so long for him.
The extras on this Blu-ray/DVD combo release are pretty minimal but do include a few cool items. The most significant one provides seven minutes of pre-viz footage of the big set pieces. The computer animation gives a pretty good idea of how the final sequences will look. Most of the time is spent on the action-packed finalé, and it’s an effective early set-up. There’s a four-minute camera test with different actors performing variations on various scenes from the movie. There’s also a short deleted scene with Matt talking to Casey about interviewing at colleges that’s not very exciting.
The Blu-ray gives the option of watching the Director’s Cut, which adds five minutes to the running time. The new material is mostly character beats that build relationships but aren’t necessary to understanding the story.
Chronicle’s laid back style is risky because everything depends on the success of the final action sequence. If those scenes are underwhelming, all the build-up won’t mean anything. Thankfully, the closing battle goes way beyond expectations and delivers some excellent visual effects. Watching Andrew and Matt fly around Seattle and wreak serious havoc is stunning and doesn’t feel like the typical CGI. That’s no easy feat for a $12 million production, and reveals serious craftsmanship from the filmmakers. It’s one of the best examples of the found-footage genre and shows the many possibilities that still exist in that format.