“Lifts you high, but drops you fast”
More than a decade after The Blair Witch Project introduced this conceit, it seems that the found-footage format is here to stay. There is solid grounding for this phenomenon; video capturing and sharing is a prevalent form of correspondence for many, used to document, inform, instruct, entertain, etc. As a framing device, it has been used well (Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Last Exorcism) and has also fallen flat as a gimmick (the Paranormal Activity franchise). The failures occur where the mechanics of the story rely on the conceit to carry the film. Chronicle does not allow this framing device to draw attention to itself; it has something far more ambitious up its sleeve, but it falls far short of its potential.
The film introduces us to Andrew who is browbeaten by a drunken father and and bullied by fellow schoolmates. He is befriended by two far more socially capable guys—the easy-going, slightly intellectual cousin (Matt) and an exuberant and ambitious jock (Steven). The three stumble upon a glowing, pulsating object buried far under the ground that gives them superhuman abilities. Cleverly, this object and its origin are never made explicit and its time on screen is brief, so we don’t dwell on the material aspects of its existence. It is simply the catalyst that puts our characters in touch with their potential. Human potential, with its rewards and dangers, is the primary concern of this “superhero” tale. The film crafts a metaphor for young men discovering the power of their bodies and minds.
Despite the mostly fantastical nature of events, the first half of the film is surprisingly naturalistic and honest. My favourite section depicts the day of their first flight. The initial attempts are giddy and awkward, with mutual teasing and encouragement. Once they are air-born, the football game in the clouds is both beautiful and exhilarating. The plummet to earth and euphoric aftermath is so urgent and persuasive that it takes your breath away. During a sleepover that night, the three of them gazing up and quietly reflecting upon the events of the day, Matt admits to them that he considers it to be “the best day of his life.” It is not an off-hand remark. This is a sincere and vulnerable moment and the most powerful in the film. The three have bonded over a shared discovery, and the social reject Andrew is invited into the fold.
Just when the film has you in the palm of its hand, its grip begins to falter. We are quickly shown the dangerous possibilities inherent in people who have discovered their power over others. Andrew uses his ability to lash out at a bully—an aggressive driver honking at them—and nearly kills him. From this point on, Andrew begins to regress back to his status as social outcast, but now he has the tools to punish those who don’t understand him. Despite his somewhat unpleasant home life, with a drunken father and dying mother, it is hard to sympathize with Andrew when he becomes so absurdly sullen and angry. Matt and Steven consistently make the effort to communicate with him, but Andrew spends the rest of the film throwing tantrums that become increasingly violent and destructive. The climax of the film is an over-the-top confrontation where half the city gets demolished as Matt tries to convince Andrew that the world isn’t out to get him. He fails, and Andrew is sacrificed for the well-being of humanity.
The structure is sound, and this story could have worked from start to finish, but the filmmakers didn’t take the time to develop Andrew enough to make his fall from grace potent or believable. If we understood his anger and were convinced of the inevitability of his descent into vengeful hysterics, then our sympathies would be properly split and the climax would be fraught with tension. However, Andrew comes across as petulant and vicious. The final confrontation is spectacular, and the actors push the emotional intensity to the breaking point, but it just seems overwrought and empty. This is a monumental disappointment, given the sincerity shown earlier in the film.
This is certainly a film worth seeing. It is not a typical superhero origin story, wrestling with grandiose ideas of justice, vengeance and honour. Chronicle is intimate, fraught with angst, hormones and childish pranks. Football in the clouds alone is almost worth the price of admission. Savor the experience while you can, because the film drops you not long after, and you’ll fall fast and land hard.
Director: Josh Trank
Writers: Max Landis, Josh Trank
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan