If you haven’t heard of Chronicle, you aren’t alone. On hearing the title, most people think it’s a re-release of The Chronicles of Narnia or The Chronicles of Riddick. But the title of this film is just Chronicle. And it’s just out. But the word “just” doesn't do justice to this chronicle of a super-unhero in the making. This is a film — one of several this season — that focuses on the art of filmmaking. It is fun and exciting, but it also deserves critical acclaim for its cinematic techniques.
As a story, Chronicle challenges one of the basic elements of the superhero genre: for some reason, we simply accept the idea that a person who has been given supernatural powers will automatically decide to use them for the common good. From Superman to Spiderman, superheroes have accepted the idea that they have an obligation to “give back” to society by giving up their personal desires and happiness.
Chronicle asks its viewers to consider what it would really be like if a hormone-driven, angst-laden, alcohol-addled teenager suddenly developed supernatural powers of levitation and kinesthetics. In this film, might does not make man righteous, and superpowers do not necessarily make superheroes.
When three high school seniors, Andrew (Dane DaHaan), Matt (Alex Russell), and Steve (Michael B. Jordan), accidentally stumble upon what appears to be a meteor tunneled into the ground, they are exposed to something akin to radioactive power. This affects their brains, and soon they find that they can control objects outside themselves. The story is so old it is almost iconic. But these boys revel in their newfound powers and continue to frolic like teenagers. It never even occurs to them to use their powers altruistically for the betterment or protection of humankind. In fact, they never compare themselves to superheroes. Nor do they worry about any dangers or risks that might accrue to them from having been exposed to those powerful rays. They just live in the moment, laughing and playing (and fighting) as teenagers tend to do.
As the film opens, Andrew sits behind a video camera, reflected in the mirror in front of him. He carries his camera everywhere, recording his conversations and the events around him. He represents this generation’s fixation on chronicling everything they do digitally, via video cameras, Facebook, and blogs. Director Josh Trank uses a camera-lens point of view so that the camera becomes the protagonist’s eyes. It almost becomes a character, in fact — the predator in the woods or behind the closet door that is always watching.
It may seem obvious to say that the audience sees through the eyes of the protagonist; after all, that’s just Literature 101. But although we identify with the protagonist in most films, we don’t literally see what the protagonist sees. The camera is usually focused outside the protagonist, filming the character as he or she talks, walks, and interacts with others. Most of the time the eyes are actually the viewers’, not the character’s. And that feels pretty comfortable for the viewer.
In Chronicle, however, we don’t see Andrew except when he happens to be reflected in his camera’s lens by a mirror or another shiny surface, or when he decides to turn the camera onto himself, or when other inside-the-story cameras catch him on film. This deliberately draws attention to his generation’s penchant for self-recording. It echoes the narcissistic reaction of these boys to their superpowers, while giving the film a creepy, voyeuristic tension.
It's actually a little too distracting: we constantly hear Andrew’s voice off-camera; and although tension is created in the beginning, because we see only what happens while the camera is turned on, too much attention is drawn to technique. Apparently Trank realized this, because partway through the story Andrew finds a way to film the trio without holding the camera himself. Eventually Trank abandons the technique altogether by allowing the story to be “chronicled” by all the security cameras and handheld devices in the city. This seems to be less distracting for the viewer; it maintains the integrity of the concept but adds another interesting layer of meaning to the film.
In addition to offering a fresh take on the superhero genre and a fresh approach to cinematic technique, Chronicle uses some nifty special effects in showing how the boys learn how to develop and control their powers. The subplots involving Andrew’s dying mother and abusive father are also powerful in helping us to understand Andrew as more than a two-dimensional comic-book character. This is a movie that film buffs will enjoy almost as much as the teen audience it seems designed to attract.