Superhero films are Hollywood’s biggest obsession. Since perhaps 2000, they’ve churned out in excess of twenty of them – from big-budget blockbusters (Spider-Man), to more low-key, DIY efforts (Super). Stripping things right back to basics, and adopting the found-footage approach that has worked so well for the horror industry, Chronicle proves that you don’t need a big-budget or cutting edge software to achieve cinematic effects. Hell, you can even do it better.
Andrew (Dane DeHaan) is an outsider. Violently abused at home and rejected by the popularity model at school, Andrew decides to record every aspect of his life with his new toy: a £500 camcorder. Taken to a party by his older cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), Andrew follows him and the school’s popularity king, Steve (Michael B. Jordan), to a mysterious underground cavern.
When things turn eerie and they find themselves cast out from the cave, which eventually collapses in on itself, they discover that they’ve developed powers beyond their wildest dreams. At first, they use their new-fangled telekinesis to cause mischief and mayhem for their fellow townspeople (moving teddy bears and even cars), but as they become stronger and Andrew’s personal life falls further and further apart, things go awry, fast.
It would be easy to simply write-off Chronicle as another low-budget, found-footage film or even a superhero film, but that would be a massive disservice to the lengths to which director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis have stretched to to ensure their slice of technical wizardry doesn’t fall flat on its face. Not only have the filmmakers crafted a piece of cinema that feels every bit as cinematic as big-budget efforts do, but they’ve also challenged the pre-conceived ideals and perceptions of a genre film. Chronicle does not fit into any specific genre. It takes little bits from each, and blends them into something truly special.
Not only do all involved work hard to find inventive ways to incorporate the found-footage, shaky-cam into their storytelling – from CCTV cameras to hazy mobile phone footage – but it also feels as though these events could actually happen. The narrative doesn’t rely on spectacular set pieces, but more on the intimate character interactions and psychologies of what these people can do when somehow gifted with superhuman powers.
In that frame of mind, it’s the cast that validate the whole experience. When the film starts, Andrew, Matt and Steve couldn’t be more different, each at different levels of popularity, with their own problems and attitude towards life. As their relationships with each other develop through their unlikely bond, they start to understand each other better, but not in a way that ever shatters what’s already been established. It’s clear they’re very much unstable and out of their depth – particularly Andrew, superbly portrayed by DeHann – which gradually comes to fruition as the plot progresses and their powers burgeon.
The overall success of Chronicle can be attributed to many different elements: the brilliant way in which Trank and Landis keep the narrative sturdy while maintaining the anything-could-happen feel of the proceeding events; the naturalistic embodiment of youth and unpredictability captured by the three lead actors; or the fact that there’s high level of integrity coursing throughout. The faults it has, including a lack of audience-character emotion during the climactic finale, feel elementary to the style and don’t deter the film’s impact as a whole.
Perhaps it’s biggest achievement, though, is the fact it’s almost entirely fearless in its execution. Nothing that’s on show here feels like it’s been shortchanged by the self-imposed restrictions. Every single person involved has done a remarkable job in ensuring Chronicle does what most of its contemporaries fail to do: offer up a believable and plausible narrative, while also delivering as an entertaining, well acted and blow-your-socks-off thrill ride.