Chronicle 2012 UK/USA
Directed by Josh Trant
Screening at UK cinemas.
Warning: It’s almost impossible for me to be able to talk about certain of the more interesting aspects of Chronicle without at least including some spoilers, which can’t be gleaned from the trailer. That being said, I will at least try not to give the ending away... although most people will be able to predict how this movie is going to end anyway... at least in the broad strokes.
Well then... it seems like every 1 in 10 new movie releases I go to these days is another hand-held, found footage, 1st person “shooter” and, yes, Chronicle is certainly and wholeheartedly another one of these. However, there are also some differences in the way that the format and presentation have been made more flexible, which are notable and worth giving credit for... this movie surprised me quite a bit, it has to be said.
The first time I saw the trailer about a bunch of teenage friends who accidentally acquire “super powers” with one of them filming their “stunts”, it looked kinda interesting but, subsequent viewings made me realise how irritating these teenage kids are in those particular clips they showed in the trailer. I’d almost changed my mind about going to see it at all but my cousin who, to be fair, had only seen the trailer the once, wanted to check it out and I certainly didn’t mind taking a look either... although I was fully intending to have to name this review “Chronic”.
However, as it turns out, Chronicle is a fairly well-crafted, pseudo-reality movie which follows the path of three teenagers thrown together under strange circumstances. These teenagers, while admittedly irritating for a while, kind of grow on you the more they bond with each other and grow in strength as they practice and hone their newly acquired mental abilities. There’s a definite sense of characters changing/progressing as their story transpires but, the more interesting stuff about this one, is the fact that although it’s fairly obvious (even from the trailer) that one of the characters goes a bit “dark side” on everybody, the background given to that character right from the outset means it’s really not a clear cut question of good versus evil here. It’s all very charcoal grey when it comes to pitching the tone of these kids and the movie certainly builds up the audience sympathy with the focus of the darker elements in the movie and, although the film isn’t exactly subtle in the way it goes about things, it gets a bit of respect from me here because it’s a little harder to do this with the “real footage” format than it would be in a more distanced form of shooting. I can’t, for instance, help but compare it to the film I saw last week, The Darkest Hour, which Chronicle walks all over in the character building stakes.
What’s more interesting, though, as I mentioned earlier, are the differences in the first person technique within this movie as opposed to pretty much everything else that has gone before it, starting with Cannibal Holocaust in 1980 and then right through the wave of these movies popping up at the cinema in the wake of the popularisation of the genre with The Blair Witch Project. They’re coming thick and fast now with two new REC movies coming up (at least one of which will retain this style of the original shooting I expect) and at least three movies I remember from the end of last year... Apollo 18, The Troll Hunter and Paranormal Activity 3, joining in the “audience as camera eye” fun.
The first difference between the use of hand held on this one is that there is absolutely no justification or explanation as to why you are watching what effectively amounts to somebody’s home movies. It just jumps you straight in at the deep end and after a while you realise that any camera’s views in any scenes, whether they belong to the main protagonists or not, are all artificially “mixed in” to the final edit to open up the total viewpoint of the storytelling when it’s needed. So a guy taking movies out his apartment window, security camera footage and so on, is all just edited together to give the audience a deeper and more easy to understand picture of what’s going on. Since the camera recording the earlier footage in the movie gets trashed, you may like to assume that either the police or the CIA or whoever, are collecting evidence as to what happened and have edited it into an understandable form... but there’s absolutely no indication or not as to whether this is the case and so, I feel, the lack of context is a bold move which will allow other film makers to play around without worrying too much about the “collective viewpoint” the audience is looking back from.
Another thing which is interesting is the fact that the kid who is really strong in his psychokinetic powers is able to use the camera as a free flying recording device which floats about on its own and can swoop and catch things almost without the kid trying to do anything. This is interesting because, what it means is that, in a “real footage” film we have a director who is able to take back the camera from the actor and give the shots some dynamism without actually breaking the rules of the movie, which are admittedly far from realistic but certainly “fair play” when it comes to pushing this particular brand of the art form forward. The story makes possible the more lax limitations on what the director can do with the camera... a perfect solution. Of course, there’s naturally a feeling of movie makers trying to have their cake and eat it here but, since this is a very rare exception to the limitations of the visual syntax without breaking the rules of engagement, so to speak, then I think it’s probably fair game and to be applauded in its own right.
Another great thing about this movie is its total lack of interest in providing any real closure on the reason these three friends have started to develop these “special powers” in the first place. Near the start of the film, after setting up two of the characters for a bit, the three main protagonists come together and investigate a mysterious, noisy hole in the ground which opens up into a cavern which contains this movies equivalent of Hitchcock’s MacGuffin... an alien-like structure which seems to house some kind of intelligence which attracts blood from “our heroes” noses and causes them all to pass out in pain. When they awaken, they are out of the hole and it’s a day or so later in terms of when we rejoin them. They have no idea how they got out of the hole and they have all inherited special powers which they are slowly getting used to. They return to the hole, only to find that it has been filled in and the area made off limits by the government... you never find out what the thing in the whole was. Not in this movie, anyway. The rest of the story deals with the way these three teens try to deal with the great power which has been thrust upon them and shows the wedge which drives them apart and leads to the wholesale slaughter and destruction of many innocents towards the end of the movie.
Getting to that predictable but chilling last battle is pretty cool though. First person shooter movies are usually shot on a small budget, by their nature, but examples like this and Cloverfield show that there’s room for big budget movies in this arena too... although in some ways that kinda scotches the chance of having a proportionally extra large profit returned on your original budget. There are some really great flying sequences in this movie and the scene from the end of the trailer where good guy/bad guy Andrew demonstrably crushes a car while talking directly into the camera is every bit as worrisome within the context of the movie as you would imagine it could be.
I do, of course, have a couple of minor quibbles too...
While the writers and director have felt under no obligation to tell you about the origins of the edited together version of the footage, they certainly get very heavy handed when they introduce the reasons for Andrew to be filming everything wherever he goes in the first place. Basically, he’s bullied at school and has a very abusive father who continually knocks the crap out of him... so he’s started filming these incidents and everything else, putting a layer between the real world and his camera eye. The point is long laboured but the movie makers really want you to invest in the concept that it’s a perfectly natural thing for a teenage boy to take his video camera with him wherever he goes. I can understand the reasons for this hard sell approach... without this basic concept being accepted/believed in by the audience, you just don’t have a movie... but I did feel like the point was being rammed down my throat a little bit in places.
The other thing which is a bit tired for me is that it’s exactly the character who is set up as being bullied and shy who goes bad and strikes out at the human race after he’s convinced himself of his God-like status. It all feels a little too clichéd after the negative lifestyle of the lad in question has been poured on that thick. It seems ot me it would have been more interesting if one of the other characters had turned into the bad guy, totally out of the blue and with an added shock value thrown in to boot. But I have to say, this really is just a minor quibble and in no way detracts from the sheer spectacle of what happens as the film progresses.
I don’t want to give away too much about the ending but it’s clear to see that the possibility of a franchise is in the works. The “hole in the ground” plot factor is mentioned again at the end to remind the audience of the, as yet, unsolved status of the initial cause of all this blood and thunder on screen. It’s a thread which is left deliberately dangling so future screenwriters can give it a yank if they feel they need that to be the way they go with any sequels. It’s not necessarily a bad thing but it did kinda smack of being a Hollywood, keep-the-kiddies-happy kind of ploy rather than a satisfying conclusion to the film in its own right.
This again, though, is a minor point.
Chronicle is a really interesting study of that old 1962 Spider-Man declaration... “with great power comes great responsibility” although, to be fair, in this movie it tends to read more as “with great power comes the inevitable ability to try to exploit it, use it for criminal purposes and just generally screw your own life up.”
Nevertheless, I’d have to give Chronicle a hard recommendation because it’s rare that these hand-held dramas turn out to also be big budget special effects extravaganzas... but mostly because, when all is said an done, Chronicle is an entertaining piece of movie making, that is if you can get past the vaguely aggravating teen-speak that keeps cropping up in abundance whenever any two characters are seen on screen at the same time. Catch it now before it flies out of your local cinema.