Movie Review: 'Chronicle'


The last decade has indicated at least one clear thing: superhero movies are very popular, and now that we have the technology to bring even the craziest characters to life, there should be no shortage of films spawned from the houses of Marvel, DC, or your favorite indie publisher. Audiences love superhero movies so damn much that the powers-that-be have rebooted individual characters more than once -- and now they're planning the biggest superhero battle royale to ever hit the screens. (That'd be The Avengers.) (Oh, and also these Dark Knight movies are outrageously popular.)

So the stable of "established" comic book characters has a sunny future ahead. Hell, I bet even Aquaman gets his own movie before all is said and done. But what of the "original" superhero movies? The ones that take inspiration, if little else, from the Marvel / DC formula, only to create something a little weirder, darker, or more subversive than the standard comic book movie fare. Indies like The Specials, Defendor, Super, and Special -- and bigger flicks like Unbreakable, Hancock, and The Incredibles -- have done a surprisingly good job of mixing the escapism we expect with some emotional / psychological insights we might not. And now we have a surprisingly impressive little newcomer to add to the list.

Probably best described as Cloverfield meets Unbreakable, Chronicle is a nice little shot in the arm to a sub-genre that's constantly in danger of growing stale. Of course there's nothing wrong with a simple spectacle like Thor or Captain America, but there's something sincerely refreshing about a Chronicle's novel perspectives on a familiar concept. Regarding the "Cloverfield meets Unbreakable" comparison, I mean that Chronicle is a smooth mixture of the "found footage" / "social politics in dangerous places" angle found in Cloverfield and the "true superhero in a mundane world" concepts that worked so well in Unbreakable. Chronicle starts out small and personal, but it gradually becomes more "epic" as the film progresses.

It's the simple story of three high-school guys (of decidedly different social status) who come into contact with something mysterious -- and somehow earn the dazzling power of telekinesis. This means that Steve (the popular guy), Matt (the nice guy), and Andrew (the miserable guy) can move objects with their mind, prevent themselves from being hurt, and (eventually) soar through the clouds. The trio, of course, uses their powers to cause some childish mayhem, but once the novelty of their newfound powers starts to wane -- and real life starts to intervene -- Chronicle turns from a simple story of teenage "freedom" into something considerably smarter, sweeter, and insightful. The screenplay by Max Landis is thick with ideas about how one can never truly escape their social class, how loyalties among friends can grow and dissolve overnight, and how sorrow and fury are so closely connected. 

Presented in a first-person (aka "found footage") perspective, Chronicle may look like simple escapist fare on the surface, and while the visual gimmickry does (ever so slightly) detract from the movie's more poignant moments, that's not too large a complaint. At least this smart, sharp 90-minute treat has a few moments of well-earned emotion. The three leads are strong across the board, with Dane DeHaan a particular standout as the lonely kid who loves his new super-powers just a little too much. Due credit as well to longtime character actor Michael Kelly, who is asked to play an abusive father who somehow maintains a small degree our sympathy.

Kudos to Mr. Landis and first-time director Josh Trank for delivering a "teen" movie that doesn't pander to its audience, doesn't seem slavishly devoted to genre convention or franchise formula, and doesn't have any problem throwing some real warmth, wit, and danger into a superhero story that could have just coasted by on concept alone. In many ways, Chronicle seems poised to kick-start a big fat franchise of its own. In other, more interesting ways, it's a great little movie that stands perfectly well on its own.