I have to admit this was a very pleasant surprise, perhaps because it’s the first film in months I haven’t seen endless trailers or saturation TV ads for, but then again I went to sleep last November when the cold and dark arrived and just woke up last Tuesday.
Continuing the relatively new trend for ‘found footage’ beginning with Blair Witch and peaking with the thrillingly frightening Cloverfield, this is a rather compelling if occasionally flawed variation on a theme providing a welcome twist on the conventions of the rise and fall of the superhero.
Initially this is the story of the developing friendship between three high school students - Andrew, Matt and Steve. Andrew the shy and reclusive, Matt the older more responsible cousin and Steve a popular and charismatic dude running for school president.
From the opening frame Andrew decides to document as much of his life as possible on his new if out-of-date camcorder. He eventually admits to Matt it provides a psychological barrier between himself and the rest of a world he’s at odds with. The irony is that as he becomes his own ‘war correspondent’ his experiences as cameraman attract as much if not more trouble than he already has to deal with on the homefront.
Played sympathetically by Dane Dehaan and uncannily resembling at times a young Leonardo Di Caprio, Andrew is a haunted and ultimately tragic teenager wrestling with domestic demons and struggling to fit in. God forbid anything should give such a troubled soul superpowers but that’s what exactly happens.
The three lads stumble one night upon what looks like the crystal spaceship that transported Superman as a baby to earth and just like that they are imbued with the power of telekinesis, a ‘gift’ that gradually becomes more powerful and refined over time.
Initially it’s all playful as they hang out in their own exclusive secret superhero club blowing wind up girl’s skirts and frightening kids with flying teddy bears. But as they develop their abilities it becomes clear that Andrew, the one filled with rage and pain has trouble controlling a power that will eventually outstrip the other two and lead to a terrible conclusion.
Whilst the first half of the film is playful and at times amusing, as the trio muck about with their newfound gift its Andrew’s inability to control his temperament that leads to the first of two sudden changes of direction. Without giving too much away, a significant character is unexpectedly killed and the fallout leads to a tragic and exhilarating conclusion.
What makes it all work is that from the outset, it isn’t really about the abuse of supernatural power, its about the nature of friendship and how you deal with your own psyche when it's put under pressure. In that respect the film has pretensions to being a document about social injustices in modern times whilst trying to entertain on a popcorn level but for the most part it pulls it off.
The subtext is about the consequences of bullying, about domestic abuse, the need to integrate into a society obsessed with popularity and ultimately about why a developed nation should have a free health care system.
Whatever doubts you might have lingering as it unfolds and even despite the odd under par special effect, the final loss of self-control in the showdown in central Seattle (preceded by a wonderful ‘Ziggy Stardust’ scene) is nothing short of breathtaking and despite the pretentious coda at the very end it leaves one’s spine thoroughly tingled.
Overall the script, performances and direction are superb. Chronicle has already received much stick for its ‘contrived’ method of assembling footage from multiple sources such as camcorder, newsreel and CCTV plus the gimmick Andrew can document events with a flying camera but for me it works as long as you go with the conceit, particularly now we’re in a world where every teenager has an i-phone to capture every pointless moment of their existence.
If you remember Brian De Palma’s Carrie and enjoyed the atmosphere and ideas of The Butterfly Effect then you’ll find Chronicle a thoroughly entertaining romp.