By Myriam Ghattas
“Chronicle” (2012) is the story of three high school students who stumble upon a mysterious alien-looking substance that, upon contact, endows them with the formidable super-power of telekinesis. As Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), Matt Garetty (Alex Russell) and Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan) begin to explore their newfound powers, they graduate from silly innocent pranks to more dangerous exercises.
The three boys have well-defined characters that will ultimately contribute to deciding their fate. The former underdog of the three, Andrew, with a dying mother and abusive father — played by Michael Kelly in a brief but impactful performance — in the background, gains popularity as he discovers an innately superior aptitude to use his power and promptly starts to own his apparent invincibility. Matt, his cousin, reviews his priorities over the course of the movie and serves as the conscious of the group. Steve is the ultra-popular kid at school running for class president who begins harboring bigger and better dreams once more fully in control of his telekinetic skills.
Josh Trank directs a screenplay penned by Max Landis, son of star author John Landis, with whom he developed the story. Trank himself is a young filmmaker, barely a handful of years older than his own characters, whose prior directorial undertakings count a mere few episodes of a TV series, “The Kill Point” (2007).
“Chronicle” is shot from a point-of-view perspective, a trend popularized to a wide raving audience in modern cinema by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez in “The Blair Witch Project” (1999) and exploited more recently with the likes of “Cloverfield” (2008) and “Paranormal Activity” (2007).
Trank’s film thus appears to be shot with a handheld camera owned by the main character, Andrew, who wishes to chronicle his daily life, as a form of video diary. Little does he know that, from the time that he receives his camera at the onset of the film, he would soon end up chronicling a far more colorful adventure than the mundane daily chores he originally anticipated.
The first-person approach to camerawork can be rather a tricky and daring exercise for any filmmaker, which explains the limited number of productions that employ this shooting style. Arguably the best instance of a film using point-of-view in a masterful capacity is Julian Schnabel’s Oscar-nominee “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” (2007). In “Chronicle,” the false documentary approach wears off fairly quickly as it limits significantly the cinematographic choices and can lead to the image feeling flat and monotonous.
It seems that Trank may have felt the same way about his ability to sustain a compelling visual structure for he soon ends up ridding Andrew of the handheld gimmick as his character levitates the camera in the air for more floatingly benign cinematic shots.
When Andrew and his camera are no longer involved in shooting the action, Trank resorts to security and surveillance footage to continue covering the story from a witness perspective. Yet, even so, towards the end, some of the shots are clearly not recorded by any diegetic camera justifiably present in the world of the movie. For a film that was so carefully constructed around the found-footage formula of storytelling, this oversight is puzzling and regrettable.
“Chronicle’s” most commendable achievement resides in the fact that the story refrains from delving into a supernatural alien or otherwise disaster/heroic-type action-flavored blockbuster despite having virtually omnipotent protagonists. Not to say that the film is devoid of some mind-bending flying sequences and a well-choreographed high-impact finale in an apocalyptic-looking Seattle.
Unlike other superhero-type stories where you have a wise uncle Ben warning Peter Parker against the abuse of power or Bruce Wayne protecting Gotham city when he gages that the danger is worth his time and effort, Trank’s characters are entwined in a primal egotistical enjoyment of their powers that sparks to mind a “Lord of The Flies”-esque nightmare scenario.
Trank, under the guise of a teen movie, manages to infuse his film with deeply philosophical and ethical questions. The narrative remains centered on the evolution of the three boys’ personal relationships with one another and the manner in which they perceive the possibilities made available to them through their powers.
Andrew, Matt and Steve begin questioning their sense of empowerment from early on, with Matt instinctually opting to impose a code of conduct that prohibits the use of their powers on other living beings (another pop culture reference — of which “Chronicle” abounds — to one of three Harry Potter all-time no no’s, the Imperius curse). Steve primarily focuses on the joyride aspect of the whole affair, while Andrew feels increasingly drawn to indulge his ability and unleash the inner monster.
The filmmaker has further discussed the potential for a sequel, stating that there are various directions to explore in the story picking up from the point where “Chronicle” leaves off.
Verging on prominent manga sensibilities similar in aesthetic and storyline to the world of Katsuhiro Ohtomo’s cult anime “Akira” (1988) and to the heightened fight scenes of “Dragon Ball” style and proportion, “Chronicle” achieves a delicate balance of thrills and introspection.
Trank’s debut feature treats the audience to a deluge of teen angst, power trips, comradeship and rivalry yielding an insightful look into the unstable machine driving humans’ wills and desires. The lesson of the day: power be used responsibly.
Dane DeHaan as Andrew Detmer in Chronicle.