Chronicle proves there’s life left in the superhero genre

Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis bring us Chronicle, a found footage film about the exploits of three high school teenagers who discover one day they have extraordinary powers.

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I can say, without hesitation, that I’m a fan of the found-footage genre. Chronicle enters the ring aiming to appeal to audiences on two fronts. It brings with it the pseudo-realism of capturing the story through the characters’ own cameras, as well as the inherent cinematic appeal of superheroes. Like the alternative visual style popularised initially by The Blair Witch Project in 1999, Chronicle flirts with convention (and indeed stereotype) but shirks categorisation, much like M. Night Shyamalan’s interpretation of superpowers in Unbreakable, becoming, similarly to its chief protagonists, something new.

Chronicle begins as quiet, reserved high school teenager Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan) begins to videotape elements of his life. He focuses on the physical and emotional abuse he faces from his alcoholic father, as well as the heartbreak as he watches his mother slowly succumb to cancer. He’s a loner at school, often bullied, his only social outlet being his more outgoing cousin Matt (Alex Russell). So far, so generic, but things take a turn into more interesting territory when Andrew, Matt and popular student Steve (Michael B. Jordan) find an underground cave in a remote part of their Seattle town. Investigating the cave they are knocked unconscious by some unknown entity and awake to find they have superhuman powers such as telekinesis and the ability to fly.

Chronicle meanders for another few minutes as the three teens play around with their new found powers but the real interest begins to seep through and director Josh Trank’s film switches into another gear. Written by Max Landis, famed Hollywood veteran John Landis’ son, Chronicle takes its own route, diverting from the well-travelled path of its initial conventions, such as the superhero movie and teen coming-of-age, to view, through an ever-darkening gaze, how these exceptional powers influence the lives of those that have them.

“Chronicle enters the ring aiming to appeal to audiences on two fronts. It brings with it the pseudo-realism of capturing the story through the characters’ own cameras, as well as the inherent cinematic appeal of superheroes.”

Of course, the focus is on the troubled one. Suddenly Andrew has the strength to fight back against his abusive father and the school bullies while dazzling fellow classmates with his “magician” skills at the school show. Trank and Landis ask – how far would you go with your new found superiority, when does it become an abuse of power, and can it actually prove detrimental. As Chronicle transitions from the mildly comical exhibition of this supremacy to the true destructive power and tyrannical sense of enveloping doom, it is certainly worthy of high praise. Indeed, its concluding reels distinguish it above and beyond found-footage pretenders like Cloverfield.

However, despite a wonderfully dark conclusion, Chronicle is a bunch of great ideas hung together on flimsy foundations. Andrew’s debilitating social circumstances (the abusive father, the dying mother, the outcast high school persona) is trite footing to base the film around while his friends are conceived from similar generic convention. Aside from the ambiguous nature of their superpower service provider perhaps a more interesting element would have been Andrew’s increasing anger at having an otherworldly strength that is helpless to prevent his mother’s terminal pain. Ultimately, her cancer is merely a backdrop to Andrew’s emotional hardship.

The film also loses a little credibility in its use of the found footage device. While the filmmakers innovatively tell the story through multiple cameras – from Andrew’s recording to a high school video blogger, security CCTV and national television news cameras – it does bring with it an air of professional construction that somewhat detracts from Andrew’s intimate documentation of his own life. While it works to an extent it becomes so grandiose, and far removed from a teenager filming himself in his bedroom, that you wonder why use the format in the first place. My biggest criticism of Cloverfield is that it took the found footage device and let professional cameramen loose with it, effectively null and voiding its key strength – that being authenticity through the character’s interaction and manipulation of the audience’s point of view.

“While the filmmakers innovatively tell the story through multiple cameras – from Andrew’s recording to a high school video blogger, security CCTV and national television news cameras – it does bring with it an air of professional construction that somewhat detracts from Andrew’s intimate documentation of his own life.”

Yet, Chronicle doesn’t break the device to the extent of the overrated Cloverfield. Indeed, while its ushering in of Big Brother magnifies the scale of proceedings, it does remind us how much of our world and our lives are under the watchful eye of a nearby camera. It is a fittingly sombre conceit that sits harmoniously with the film’s greatest attribute – the last twenty minutes. Chronicle gets progressively dark as the happy-go-lucky experimentation of new found superpower envelops the psyche, particularly affecting Andrew with devastating results. Feverish excitement takes over as Tranks’ admittedly brilliant special effects go in to overdrive, making for a kinetic, unnerving and visually impressive concluding chapter.

While Chronicle might drift into found-footage-as-gimmick territory it has an appealing resonance that makes it decidedly a product of its time. Following in the footsteps of those that have been inspired by the endless stream of comic book movie adaptations, the film moves seamlessly into a growing sub-genre: the alternative superhero movie. Joining the likes of Unbreakable, Kick-Ass, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, and James Gunn’s Super, these films celebrate the superhero while cracking through the veneer to explore their own avenues. Chronicle’s appealing leads, especially the performance of Dane DeHaan as Andrew, its exceptional use of visual effects, and its playful yet increasingly dark assessment of extraordinary human power certainly distinguishes it. Also, at eighty minutes it hardly outstays its welcome.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: Josh Trank
Written by: Max Landis
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russel, Michael B. Jordan, Michael Kelly, Ashley Hinshaw
Released: 2012 / Genre: Found Footage/Thriller/Superhero / Country: USA / IMDB
Buy from Amazon.co.uk: DVD | Blu-ray

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Other found footage films you might like:

Paranormal Activity 2 | Cloverfield

Top 10s and reviews about superheroes you might like:

Kick-Ass | Iron Man | The Dark Knight Rises | Top 10 Superhero Films | Top 10 Supergirls for Supergirl Reboot | Top 10 Superpowers

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Rodney Reply

    Great review, Dan. I’m inclined to disagree with your thoughts on Cloverfield, but I’ll let them slide by comparison to Chronicle – such a great film, and totally out of the box.

  2. mark Reply

    “My biggest criticism of Cloverfield is that it took the found footage device and let professional cameramen loose with it, effectively null and voiding its key strength – that being authenticity through the character’s interaction and manipulation of the audience’s point of view.”

    I disagree with this statement – I don’t think the narrative was diminished or compromised because of any after-the-event intervention … plus I thought Cloverfield was overall pretty good – it’s one of the few films I’ve seen where tedious exposition has a legitimate place.

    Admittedly I’m getting pickier and more myopic with old age (I call it the Bosley Crowther Syndrome), but I thought Chronicle lacked appropriate denouement, which was a pity as the first two thirds were pretty good.

  3. Dan Reply

    @Mark: My biggest concern with Cloverfield is that the photography, although somewhat crude given the supposed circumstances, was still far too well orchestrated.

    “Where’s the alien creature that wants to eat me?”

    “There it is, perfectly framed and documented for those that survive to see…I’m petrified and probably going to die but that won’t make me forget about the rule of thirds.”

    Chronicle didn’t have that disingenuous undercurrent and while it does draw inspiration from the currently trending superhero genre it isn’t a rehash of Godzilla for the camera-phone generation.

  4. mark Reply

    Dan – it all looks like queasycam to me … overblown, self conscious salutes to verite that I’ve had issues with since Husbands and Wives (note to self: it’s becoming risky going to the cinema with a hangover) …

  5. Dan Reply

    @Mark: Yes, I know what you mean. I’m fond of the style in general. I think my introduction to it came with 1998’s The McPherson Tape (alternatively titled Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County) which I believe was the biggest inspiration for the following year’s The Blair Witch Project, which remains my favourite of the found footage film.

  6. Scott Lawlor Reply

    I have had it with found footage. But this was a nice take on the flailing genre. Great review matey

  7. Evan Crean Reply

    I’ve heard a lot of mixed things about this film, but I’ve heard enough positive reviews at this point to get me to give it a try. Normally I’m not into found footage films. Although if this movie plays with their conventions like End of Watch does, then I’ll probably enjoy it. Based on what I’m reading from most people here it sounds like Chronicle has interesting style, yet it’s lacking a bit in the strength of its story and character development, so we’ll see if I like it.

  8. ruth Reply

    Unlike you, I don’t like found footage genre at all, Dan. That said, I’m willing to make exceptions and I’m glad I did with this one. It was quite an engrossing thriller and the finale was well, bombastic for all the right reasons.

  9. Nostra Reply

    This was a really nice surprise to me, a movie I really enjoyed. I agree with the found footage aspect. If this was really edited from found footage the editor would have had to use so many devices to make this. There must have been a dumpster full of them 😉

  10. Andrew Reply

    I really liked this; it’s hard to call it “found footage” just because Trank cheats the conceit so much with superpowers, but regardless of where it fits in cinematic categorization, it’s a wonderfully told story about teenhood and growing up. It helps a lot that the performances are uniformly pretty good. Great review!

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