These days, it seems the only cinematic way to suitably recreate the belief that unfolding events are ‘real’ and instil a climate of fear is a cross between pseudo-documentary shooting and mimicking the YouTube generation of ‘caught-on-camera’ moments, the likes of which Paranormal Activity to Blair Witch have successfully sold. Debut feature writer-director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis have taken this still fresh and inspiring genre, and given it a sci-fi spin with their anti-superhero flick Chronicle.
In the story, three teenagers from very different school social spheres – loner with a troubled family life Andrew (brilliantly played by relative newcomer Dane DeHaan), popular class president nominee Steve (Michael B. Jordan) and good-natured pseudo-intellectual and average grade achiever Matt (Alex Russell) – discover a mysterious hole in the ground and climb in to investigate… After their subterranean alien find, each teen discovers they have telekinetic abilities, which they use for amusement at first, causing the unlikely trio to bond. But even with superhuman abilities, the average teenage angst and issues still bubble to the surface, and the initial fun turns sour as the new powers are used for darker purposes – namely to hurt others.
As with this pseudo-documented genre, the narrative is ever evolving and equally quizzical that it engages the viewer – even grips and controls the imagination from the get-go, as you wait for things to transpire. What Trank and Landis have done is taken the superhero genre workings of the fragile balance of good-and-evil, and added a sinister teen-angst kick to their story: It all sounds like Steve Taylor’s The Source, with teens abusing their newfound powers.
However, the result is more potent than your average good guys verse bad ones, like in the X-Men, as the ‘realistic’ roaming eye, combined with everyday teenage issues could render any one of the trio irresponsible and ultimately dangerous. It’s this sense of risk and the unknown as to each character’s development that Trank has captured so effectively in using ‘amateur’ footage: Thankfully, it isn’t as nauseating to watch as Cloverfield. The ‘cinematographers’ are the cast who try to capture the best shots and angles within the story, in a sense, fully aware that their footage will have an intended audience one day, and reinforcing the self-documenting style.
The only sticking point at times is just who is ‘editing’ the footage – whose story is it, especially as tragedy inevitably strikes? Perhaps this can be explained by the levitating powers that allow the subject to self-film, without physically operating the camera, and hence pass on the video documenting.
As for superhuman action sequences, what starts out as immature schoolboy pranks (attacking teddies and lifting girls’ skirts) with some sharp and witty observations in the script, soon turns into more regular superhero stunts: The ability to fly has been seen and done before from the days of Superman, but it’s sharing the lads’ sense of wonder in the moment that makes these soaring sequences some of the most exhilarating to watch, as they see what their bodies and minds can do – much like watching small infants learning all over again.
The move from innocence to corruption in Chronicle’s narrative accumulates in one breathtaking climax, not because it’s riddled with any grand special effects, but because Trank sticks to the ‘caught-on-camera’ mantra, ensuring any action displayed is as ‘realistic’ as possible. It’s certainly like watching the stuff of daydreams, which is what makes Chronicle such a dynamic and genuinely exciting piece of first-time feature film-making, giving birth to an equally exciting rising star in DeHaan, too, so watch this space…