Chronicle – Review

Chronicle – Review

By FilmFella Darren – 9/10

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to have super-powers? Of course you have. You are part of a generation that grew up with superheroes as one of the main cornerstones of popular culture. As we have gotten older, films have worked harder to suggest there is a reality behind the fantasy: Chris Nolan’s Gotham city was far less stylized and much more realistic looking than previous Batman worlds; Kick-ass suggested that to be a superhero you don’t need superpowers at all – just a ballsy attitude and a high tolerance for pain; and The Watchmen presented a world for superheroes in which they were subjected to real problems in a film that made audiences consider how the world would change if Superheroes were real.

Many films have tried to make superheroes and their superpowers more tangible then – no film has ever nailed the idea of making superpowers realistic as authentically as Chronicle does. You will watch just what happens to the trio of teenagers in Chronicle,  slack-jawed with amazement, staring in disbelief with the same expression of incredulity as if you saw your mates rise up in the air and fly over your head.  As you can imagine, that makes this an incredibly thrilling experience. The subtle special effects are executed so superbly by 27-year-old director Josh Tank and special effects wizard Simon Hansen. The film is an enchanting optical illusion.

If someone mutated in a way that caused them to gain superpowers, then just what they would do would no-doubt mirror what happens within this exciting film. The story is utterly simple, so simple in fact it doesn’t even seem like a story. It seems like real life, which is why the film has such a down-to-earth feel.

Three Seattle high-school teenagers venture out into the woods and stumble on a mysterious hole in the ground. Quite recklessly, the three think it would be a big laugh if they go down the hole. What they find down there changes their lives forever, but how will they deal with the changes that the experiences creates?

The setup isn’t original admittedly and quite what causes the high-school students to acquire their powers, may raise a few eye-brows as it looks like something that could have been used in a fifties horror movie.  It doesn’t matter though, as it soon becomes apparent that how these high-school students got their powers is academic, it’s what they do with them that is enthralling here.  The film shoves two fingers up in the direction of Spider-man and his mantra of: ‘with great power comes great responsibility. ‘ What happens here is the antithesis of the web-slinger’s philosophy. The thought of making the world a better place, doesn’t cross the minds of these characters.

There are no grandiose moments of coming of age self-realisation. Instead these kids just want to have fun. And boy, are they reckless. Cue a range of scenes where we see the trio pulling pranks – the spellbindingly  special effects are wonderfully understated during these scenes– as we witness them trying out, then refining their extraordinary new talents. Not only are the early scenes amusing and organically comic, they make you think: ‘yes, this is probably what I’d do if I had superpowers.’ It’s light, it’s playful and then suddenly, a moment of chilling darkness pierces the larking about, giving you a hint at how dangerous these high-school kids could now be. Maybe Spidey had a point after all.

What makes the film work is the stylistics. It’s shot on a faux hand-held style. Sure, the creativity has been drained out of the once refreshing concept recently; but here it is spectacularly revitalized ; applying that DIY camera style to subject matter only ever seen in big, glossy blockbusters, simultaneously energizes both the superhero movie and the fake documentary style seen in many films since The Blair witch project.  In fact, it is the best use of the ‘found footage’ format we have seen so far, better than the pioneering Blair witch; better than Cloverfield.

‘You’ll believe a man could fly’ was the quote connected with Superman; that was just movie tag-line talk in comparison to this; whilst watching the exhilarating scenes in Chronicle, you will actually believe a man could fly. There are a number of mind-blowingly dramatic set-pieces – although they don’t feel like set-pieces – which seem to make the impossible look plausible.  There are at least a dozen moments that will cause you to collect your jaw from the floor as you stare at the screen in wide-eyed disbelief.

The way everybody interacts with the camera – even the incidental people at the start – seems genuine and because the characters are not limited to hold the hand held camera due to what happens to them, the concept allows for some wonderful camera angles, creating an effect far more immersive than any 3D. Director Josh Tank’s style takes you up close and personal to the explosive action. You really feel like you are being flung about yourself during a number of scenes, particularly during the scintillating finale. 3D film directors – watch and learn.

Character wise, there is definite development as the film progresses; the three young actors are all solid presences, yet they seem like genuine people. Michael B Jordan is charismatic and likeable; Matt Garetty is natural and  Dane De Hananon social awkwardness sets up something interesting whilst making his character believable. The audience is the fourth member of their gang; we really get a sense of experiencing what these three are doing.

The old themes of power corrupting is cleverly explored as the film inevitably darkens in tone; you also get a sense of how easy it would be to make mistakes with such superhuman skills as the film allows you to contemplate how easy it would be to stumble towards villainy if blessed/cursed with unusual gifts. Like I said earlier, the reality of what it would be like to have superpowers has never been done as well as in Chronicle. You will contemplate the ideas as if they were a reality.

Chronicle features young-teenagers acquiring superpowers yet none of them are ever likely to pull on a vibrant lycra suit and start fighting crime, which means this takes the well-worn superhero movie in a spectacular new direction. There simply has never been a superpowers movie like this; if you have ever wondered what it would be like to soar past the limits of human capability, this film is essential viewing; one small low-budget ( just $12 million) superpowers movie just made the genre take a giant leap forward. Visually, superpowers have never been rendered with this level of realism.

Forget Spider-man, Superman and the other crime-fighters, there are new people with superpowers in town, and thrillingly, they seem a lot like you and me; they are out to tear-up the superheroes’ code of ethics; who wants to be a hero when you could have some fun instead right?

Follow my tweets @filmfelladarren

Chronicle – Trailer

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About Filmfella Darren
Film critic, writer and long-time cinema appreciator. I write about cinema matters, because cinema matters. Like your clothes and your laptops, my articles were made in Taiwan.

7 Responses to Chronicle – Review

  1. FilmfellaDarren says:

    I’ve just noticed that I wrote Josh Tank instead of Trank. I blame my fading eye-sight. Sorry to Mr Trank if you are reading.

  2. filmboy says:

    I would have rated it 9/10 as well if it wasnt for the found footage angle. Seems they wished they hadnt started like it about half way through and had to find ever increasingly daft ways of making that part work. Pity, coz as a straight film it would have been one of the best of the year

  3. FilmfellaDarren says:

    Thanks for your comment Filmboy. I’m glad someone else liked the film nearly as much as me. There are a number of people out there who agree with you that it could have worked better without the found footage conceit. Personally, I felt the handheld style worked perfectly and I love the idea that they are using their powers to place the camera in obscure positions that you could only reach with superpowers – for me that was very clever. Without the handheld style I think it would lose that sense of intimacy that takes us up close to what the three are experiencing. I think it would make perfect sense if you discovered you had superpowers to walk around with a camera and film your laws-of-physics defying antics. Particularly as we live in an age where everyone views everything through a lens or a screen. A lot of the shots felt like something that could appear on youtube, which I thought really enhanced their impact. If people discovered they had superpowers they would no-doubt film it, firstly thinking, this will make me famous and youtube, and secondly thinking this could make me rich and famous outside worldwide. I also thought the handheld style made the effects finale seem a lot more intense. Yes, I thought the use of the documentary style was the most effective I’ve ever seen.

  4. I watched this film after reading this review – spot on. I loved the philosophical angle, references to Jung, Plato and then eventually Darwin’s dangerous ideas on natural selection and the apex predator.

  5. Filmfella Darren says:

    Thanks for your comment Oliver – it is much appreciated. Honestly, it is comments like this that make it far more satisfying to write on the internet than to get paid to be published in print; knowing someone felt like they needed to see the film and then liked said film, and then came back with a thought-provoking comment, is absolutely the reason why i find writing fulfilling. There was definitely a philosophical angle and I definitely saw the Darwin influence. I think i’ll watch the film again and ponder what you said about Plato and Jung, as what you said there is intriguing. But it definitely shows there is a lot of substance to the film. I think come the end of the year, Chronicle will be in my top five films of 2012.

  6. Adam Harvey says:

    I really wasn’t too impressed with Chronicle! I thought it was a great and easy concept to dramatise and, for the most part, the film-makers failed to make the most of a gift of a premise. Incidentally I’ll be using some *SPOILERS* here just in case anybody hasn’t seen the film!

    The whole found footage angle was atrocious I thought. It wasn’t found footage, it was just footage! Who found it? How was the film supposed to be constructed? What’s the point in using handheld cameras and mobiles phones and CCTV if there’s no reason for it? By the end of the film it totally gave up on the idea! It got lazy when the characters could move the cameras around without holding on to them (there’s no logic to it, as if in the middle of a heated argument or the total destruction of a city you’d have either the ability or the inclination to control hundreds of handheld cameras!) and it just got plain absurd when, during the SWAT team standoff, there’s no longer any frame of reference (literally, the camera just goes where the hell it pleases without any apparent source!). It ruined much of the film for me, having to try and swallow some of that. The worst part was when his father walked into the hospital and the policeman actually had to say “I hope you don’t mind the camera, we’re filming him for our investigation”. What!? They’re filming a comatose guy for an investigation into a gas station robbery!? Ludicrous! There was actually a scene where we’re supposed to believe a girl set up and turned a camera on just to have an awkward conversation with one of the main characters on her doorstep? For her blog? I mean, I know we’re a generation used to documenting our experiences, but that’s beyond the pail. I haven’t seen too many videos on YouTube like that!

    Horrendous use of the found footage genre aside, the actual story itself was incredibly sub-par in my opinion. I completely didn’t buy the central character’s difficult home life; it just reeked of dramatic preparation. In addition, that makes the character weaker, not stronger! What would be more interesting is to see genuinely normal high-schoolers, not two guys from American Pie and one from 8 Mile! The attempt to make the one character some kind of philosopher failed badly. His references to Plato and Jung were just that; very vague references. The whole reference to the apex predator made no real sense. I mean, these guys are not in a battle for their own survival. They haven’t broached the subject of what really their powers mean for the longer term dilemmas they have to face. In the context of the film all those references to Jung and Plato and other philosophers are just pseudo-existentialist nonsense designed to make you believe these characters are actually thinking about anything seriously. First rule of film: Show, don’t tell! Don’t have the characters spouting off about evolution and Platonic philosophy and then dramatise scenes where they do magic tricks and a high school talent show and crush cars in scrap yards. If these characters are really thinking about those issues, show us! Put them in situations where we can really see what they’re made of. X-Men handled the issue of the evolution of superpowers and the responsibility of mutants towards those different from them and it actually handled it more satisfyingly!

    None of the characters really had an arc that was interesting and their choices were at best bizarre and at worst plain idiotic. I mean, the main character spent the majority of Act II completely ignoring his difficult domestic situation, instead boning up on a magic show and goofing about at school. Suddenly, when he realises his mother needs $700 for her medicine (about 60 minutes into the film, no less), he decides the perfect way to achieve this goal is to mug three idiots who live on his street (in his Dad’s fire fighting uniform!) and then rob a gas station? He actually goes to the pharmacy in one scene! Why doesn’t he just covertly steal the medicine? If he’s willing to assault and mug surely he’s willing to use his powers to sneak a couple of packets of pills from the pharmacy?! It’s just basic plotting errors like this that blight the whole film. It makes the characters weaker because they don’t make logical choices or even think about logical things.

    Are we really supposed to believe that if you gain superpowers you go back to school and spend your lunch hour flying pringles into your mouth and lifting up girl’s skirts? It would be fine if these were a few quick scenes right at the start of their journey, but literally the majority of Act II is about the main character wanting to be popular and other such mundanity. You’d completely shed your old life; concepts like school, like popularity, would (no pun intended) fly out the window. You’d either become a maniacal extrovert or a complete recluse instantly. You wouldn’t keep this kind of stuff from people, you’d become instantly unhinged. You’d lose all perspective on reality and you’d have to work very, very hard to get it back. These are the struggles that would make characters interesting and develop a story worth telling.

    The film Primer took an infinitely more interesting and satisfying look at a high concept issue (in that case, time travel). The characters made logical decisions and quickly found what looked amazing was, in fact, a nightmare of confusion and ambiguity. Primer also cost $12 million less than Chronicle, contained zero special effects,and yet still managed to be more interesting, more exciting, more realistic and more dramatic. Now, I’m not suggesting Chronicle had to be as complex or complicated to be a success, but it really didn’t hit the nail on the head at all.

    There are infinitely more interesting scenarios. What if this just happened to one guy? None of this buddy nonsense, instead focus on the extreme pressure of being the only person on the planet with the abilities depicted. What if it happened to a group of younger kids, maybe 12 year olds? Characters who really would be ‘living the dream’ and whose sense of morality and responsibility would be justifiably diminished. Instead they basically went for the least interesting demographic; a bunch of vanilla 16-18 year olds who are still hung up about getting laid and being cool. I mean, the characters were literally on a par with American Pie. The dude, the Chris Klein style handsome “good guy”, the atypical angsty victim who’s getting bullied and having a tough time at home. It’s just Peter Parker all over again.

    With the exception of a few moments spaced very far between each other, I honestly thought this film was largely a mess. The self-destructive “found footage” angle imploded instantly. I mean, the film starts because the main character decides to film himself for literally no reason. Perhaps it’s to “document” his home life? All I know is, if I’m getting bullied at school and don’t like going to social events, I wouldn’t go buying a gigantic camera from 2001 and lump it around school all day filming people and then getting upset when the same people that bully me do it all again. That defunct filming perspective wouldn’t have been so bad if the story was cracking, or the characters interesting, or the action electrifying, but none of it was. The found footage style made the action the usual mish-mash of explosions and half seen punch-ups and long-distance carnage. I saw absolutely nothing in this film I hadn’t seen in Cloverfield. Te philosophy was on a par with The Matrix: Revolutions. Pseudo-referential nonsense regarding evolution and the role of the individual. Coming from a bunch of teenagers who want to get laid and are more concerned about a talent show than how their powers could help their family or fulfil their desires. It just didn’t hold together for me at all. I mean, literally, I see nothing in this more complex or dramatic than Transformers!

    I’ve had 24 hours or so to think about this film and, frankly, it’s just sinking further down in my estimations. It’s done absolutely nothing to enhance or expand on the superhero story and, to be honest, even references to superheroes are starting to look unjust. This is not a superhero film because the characters never get close to making moral judgements or dealing with dilemmas on that sort of scale. Two character seem to want to create “rules” which amount to “let’s just fly around in uninhabited areas and goof off slightly more spectacularly than we used to be able to” and the main character is the most atypical angsty teen you can imagine, resplendent with troubled domestic life and confidence issues that amount to neon signs saying “THIS GUY GON’ BAD!” from ten minutes into the film.

    The simple truth is, this was a badly constructed found footage film and, had it been shot conventionally, the gaping holes in its paper plot would have become even more evident. I actually think that this is the worst found footage film I’ve seen; I’d rate Cloverfield a good mark higher than this and I didn’t think a huge amount of that. At least Cloverfield tied up all the loose ends and told a simple but largely believable story from the perspective of the characters. Chronicle was a more interesting concept, but a mess of an end product that I don’t think will stand the test of time remotely.

    • filmfellahenry says:

      I second that Adam. Didn’t enjoy Chronicle at all, thought it showed a complete waste of potential. I’d start a rant of my own, but you’ve pretty much said it all in your post above.

      I think come the end of the year, Chronicle will be in my bottom five films of 2012.

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