The climax of Chronicle pits two teenagers against each other, floating in airborne battle right next to Seattle’s famed Space Needle. The city has already been given its fair share of damage, thanks to these two warring parties; Andrew, the disgruntled teenager with telekinetic powers, and Matt, the more philosophically-minded teenager, also with telekinetic powers. Hovering next to the Space Needle, Matt is trying to convince his once friend now rival to put an end to the madness. In the dark of the theater and without a pause button, I didn’t have time to write down the entire exchange, but IMDB confirms the climactic plea was this: “You have to stop this right now, okay? This is really, really bad.”
This is a prime cut of dialogue, am I right? And if a line as memorable as that can make it into the high point of the movie, you don’t have to use too much imagination to figure out what the rest of Chronicle sounds like. On a conceptual level, Chronicle is ripe for the picking, but the execution makes for an excruciating experience.
It’s not that we haven’t seen some similar things before, but the notion of normal teenagers with superpowers (sans stupid costumes) has the potential for an intelligent and entertaining film. Think of Chronicle as Hancock, but with a bunch of numbskull teenagers instead of Will Smith. For a little while Chronicle manages to explore some pretty interesting stuff. These kids, when they first discover that they have powers, use them for social gain, revenge, and pranks. With telekinesis, these boys do what most any other teenagers would do: they go to a toy store and scare the daylights out of a little girl by making a stuffed bear jump off the rack and dance; they control a leaf blower so that it lifts a few skirts; and they beat up on their former tormentors. They use telekinesis to control their sexual performance, to fly, and even to express some road rage. It’s an interesting way to examine the cultural and social underpinnings of the American teenager. And it’s such a good idea that you wonder why no one else had made a movie like this before.
Chronicle is that movie for a while and then that movie stops. Because as with every other superhero movie, the superpowers inevitably turn into a life and death matter with a lot of destruction.
Instead of delving into the social consequences of having these powers, Chronicle, with its insipid and all-too-real dialogue, devolves into the most horrible of superhero clichés (again, sans the costumes): the unpopular angry kid (who is for unexplained reasons obsessed with taping everything), becomes the villain, and the jock-philosopher (who also happens to be the most classically handsome of the bunch) becomes the voice of reason and good. These two friends turned rivals are, of course, family. We’ve seen this before, haven’t we? Or we’ve at least seen dozens of variations on this theme. Only this time we get to see it with the inarticulate speech of the teenage boy and through the lens of one of the most over-used and useless film techniques in recent years: found footage.
From The Blair Witch Project to Paranormal Activity, found footage has proven to be a nice in route for aspiring filmmakers who want to break through on the cheap. The technique, if employed rigorously, can have surprising and chilling results. We do live, after all, in an era of unprecedented accessibility to video cameras and other recording devices. The technique matches the times. But this is the first time I can recall the found footage approach being applied to the superhero genre, a story format usually reserved for bloated Hollywood budgets and big name actors. Superhero movies, by virtue of their genre, require a good deal of action; the horror genre, which is predicated on suspense and chill factor more than anything, doesn’t necessarily need the money for big set pieces, special effects, or choreographed action. What Chronicle exists to prove is that action sequences cannot be adequately filmed with found footage. Square peg, round hole.
Through the early sections of Chronicle, the lack of budget and adherence to found footage is no detriment to the story at all. We are only watching teenagers goof off at various common locations. But as soon as director Josh Trank tries to ramp up the action, the training wheels fall off and this kid falls flat on his face. Any camera can capture whatever is put before it, the problem here is that Trank allows his telekinetic, ADHD characters to control the angles. The camera floats in the air and swirls around at random. Because the characters aren’t standing behind the camera but controlling it from whatever vantage point they choose, they can’t always seem to properly locate their intended subject matter. Gaspar Noe might be proud, but the results, as when two characters are fighting each other in the sky as a storm rages around them, can be disorienting and nauseous. There’s virtually no pleasure in watching the action in Chronicle unfold.
I haven’t even begun to discuss the hackneyed plot developments surrounding Matt’s abusive father and sick mother or the presence of a hot blonde blogger who also totes a video camera around like an extra appendage. But I don’t think these things are worth bothering with. Suffice it to say that Chronicle suffers from profoundly bad writing.
Maybe this one is for the kids. Maybe they can stand to listen to characters punctuate their dialogue with a million likes and reallys. Maybe the kids can handle it when the camera whips around like a demented bird, showing us nothing but arbitrary light and white noise. Maybe kids can relate to these moronic, cookie-cutter teens. Or maybe the fanboys are so obsessed with comic book lore that they can’t see a piece of junk for what it is. Whatever the case may be, audiences have gobbled Chronicle up without any apparent reflection.
Maybe I’m too old to write about this one, but Chronicle was a sheer displeasure to watch. It marks the only time I can recall 84 minutes feeling like an eternity.