Josh Trank | 90 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15*
The birth of the “found footage” sub-genre and the resurgence of the superhero movie began around the same time, the former with The Blair Witch Project in 1999 and the latter with X-Men in 2000. They both arguably came of age towards the end of the noughties, with the box office success of Paranormal Activity in 2009 and the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in 2008’s Iron Man. It was inevitable, really, that someone would eventually combine these coincidentally-linked post-millennial cinematic obsessions, and that someone was director Josh Trank, who became one of (if not the) youngest directors to open a movie in the #1 spot at the US box office with this, his debut feature.
The obvious route for a found-footage superhero movie is surely in the Kick-Ass/Super mould: a wannabe dressing up in a funny costume and setting out to fight crime, in the real world. Trank and screenwriter Max Landis have grander ambitions, however, setting their sights on characters who develop Superman-esque powers. It means the movie isn’t as low-budget and independently-produced as you might have expected (although clearly not high-budget, it’s full of special effects, and was released by 20th Century Fox), but it does retain a more subversive element — for one, that great responsibility doesn’t necessarily follow great power.
The story sees high school senior Andrew (Dane DeHaan) decide to start filming everything in his life, thanks to his borderline-abusive alcoholic father (Michael Kelly) and terminally ill mother (Bo Petersen). The same day (what a coincidence!), his cousin and only friend, Matt (Alex Russell), takes him to a party where, along with most-popular-kid-in-school Steve (Michael B. Jordan), they discover a hole in the woods with mysteries inside… Days later, all three begin to develop telekinetic powers, which they learn they can levy in various incredible ways — those ways being super, but largely without the heroic…
Which, in case you misread me, is not to say the boys become supervillains. Rather, they do what a lot of teenage lads would do: throw balls at each other with their mind; eat Pringles without having to pick up the can; use a leaf blower on a girl’s skirt; and so on. Using the found-footage style naturally, the friends experiment with their abilities, gradually increasing them, and bonding in the process. The story isn’t short of action or incident (some might disagree), but is equally character-focused, presenting individuals who are more rounded and believable people than your average superhero characters.
This is even more pronounced in the extended version (“extended director’s cut” in the US), which includes over five minutes of extra bits that, in my opinion, make it a superior edit. Some are minor in impact, true, but there are a couple of short sequences with Andrew and Steve that deepen their relationship further, which enriches events at the end of act two. There’s also a moment that subtly prefigures the climax, and an extra bit in said finale that seems nigh-on essential to me. Considering the film still runs (just under) 90 minutes even with these additions, it’s difficult to see why they were cut in the first place. “Pace” is usually the rational for that, but if this is indeed a Director’s Cut then clearly Trank didn’t think they were an issue; equally, I can’t see why Fox would have objected. Still, they’re here to enjoy on Blu-ray…. though not on DVD… and I guess they’re not in TV screenings… Tsk.
Some accuse the film of being clichéd and predictable, which I don’t hold much truck with. It’s not twist-filled, but I felt the characters and their interactions grew naturally — if you can see where it’s going, it’s because it’s well-constructed, not because it’s how every movie does it. The time invested in growing our relationship with all three lead characters pays off increasingly as the movie rolls on, too, so that the climax is about more than just spectacle.
That said, spectacle it has. You wouldn’t expect that from a $12 million found-footage movie, but an epic duel through the streets of Seattle is one of the strongest climaxes to any superhero movie I can remember. It’s kind of like Man of Steel’s, only released a year earlier and executed a thousand times better (the lack of mass destruction and associated innocent-bystander massacre is a bonus). The finale is undoubtedly the high point of the film’s visual extravagance, but numerous other sections are striking too, not least thanks to Andrew’s mastery of controlling the camera with his mind, letting it float gently around as he films himself and others.
The qualities of the climax could be seen as a microcosm for the entire film, actually: a stylistic gimmick that works so well you forget many people consider it a gimmick; a scale grander than you might expect from both that gimmick and the movie’s budget; a largely-innovative treatment of a much-trod genre; and, similarly, characters who are multi-dimensional and better-realsied than your average, thanks both to Landis’ writing and a team of top-notch performances, particularly from DeHaan and Jordan — there’s a reason they’ve both gone on to bigger things.
In the hands of many a desperate-to-get-noticed filmmaker, a found-footage superhero movie would likely have been a straight-to-DVD affair that could at best be described as “mediocre”. In Chronicle, however, Trank and co have crafted one of the best movies produced in either sub-genre. Most of the people involved — as well as the film they’ve all come from — can be classed as “one to watch”.
The network TV premiere of Chronicle is on Channel 4 tonight at 10pm.
It placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2014, which can be read in full here.
* Right: Chronicle was released in UK cinemas as a 12A, but with a couple of cuts for violence. On DVD/Blu-ray, it’s an uncut 15. Meanwhile, in the US, the theatrical version is PG-13, while the extended cut is technically Unrated. However, most of the additions are character scenes, so it’s surely still a PG-13. ^