Wednesday, January 9, 2013
A Superhero Origin Story Goes Back to the Basics in Chronicle (2012)
During the summer of 2012, I spent many hours reviewing online discussions among fans who compared The Avengers to Dark Knight Rises, the two big superhero blockbusters of that season. Some argued that The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are polar opposites of each other in terms of style and mood. On the basis of what I have just watched, I would argue otherwise: The polar opposite of both The Avengers and Dark Knight Rises is Chronicle, the 2012 low-budget film that was directed by Josh Trank and scripted by Max Landis.
I make my comparison based on one major criterion: Avengers and Dark Knight Rises are based on preexisting characters with devoted fan bases, while Chronicle creates a new set of characters that have no fan bases and thus do not have to conform to any preexisting fan expectations or narrative arcs. As a result, Chronicle feels like a fresh and emotionally honest take on a story that has been told many, many times before--the story of what happens when ordinary human beings are granted superhuman abilities. Read on for my complete review.
As I mentioned in my review of Iron Man 2, the most compelling superhero stories are the ones that act as morality plays about the nature of power--its use and abuse, who has it and who doesn't, when it should be exercised and when it shouldn't, and so on. In the case of Chronicle, a power is given to three teenage boys--the reclusive Andrew (Dane DeHaan), the philosophical Matt (Alex Russell), and the outgoing Steve (Michael B. Jordan)--discover a glowing, crystalline object buried in a pit in the woods. The power is a kind of telekinesis that grows in strength and flexibility with its continued usage. After the boys first receive the power, they spend many days together to understand it and frequently use it to do things that most teenagers are inclined to do--play pranks and perform simple tricks to impress each other. However, when a series of circumstances and events place one of the boys in a state of emotional meltdown, the power's full destructive force is unleashed upon the streets of Seattle.
Chronicle doesn't completely escape the narrative conventions that are common in superhero origin stories or horror/sci-fi stories about tormented teenagers who use supernatural or technological forces to seek revenge on those who wronged them. Thus, this film invites comparisons to both the superhero origin movies such as Superman (1978), X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) and horror/sci-fi movies such as Carrie (1976), Akira (1988) and The Craft (1996). Some of the characters' pranks will also momentarily remind viewers of certain teenage sex comedies from the 80s, comedies such as Zapped! (1982) and Weird Science (1985).
Where Chronicles succeeds on its own terms is in the strengths of its script, direction, and performances by the lead cast, as well as the usage of the "found footage" format to tell the story. Some may find it odd to see a found footage superhero origin story, particularly since the footage in question is never actually "found". Instead, the found footage approach in Chronicles is similar to that used in Skew (2011)--it invites the audience to see through the characters' eyes as events happen, such as when they first discover their power and awkwardly experiment with its usage and limitations. In particular, we get to see when the boys first learn how to fly, and watching this experience unfold through their point of view provides for an exhilarating sequence among the clouds. When the narrative crosses into the territory of horror during its final act, the found footage approach emulates that of Cloverfield (2008) in that it enhances the fear that emanates from the enormous acts of destruction enabled by the boys' seemingly inexhaustible power. The kind of raw brutality and emotional shock that takes place at the end of Chronicle will never be seen in films featuring a popular superhero characters, lest they offend certain fan sensibilities or limit toy merchandising opportunities. Indeed, the final confrontation in Chronicle makes the final confrontation in Superman II (1980) look like a minor misunderstanding between urbane and cultured gentlefolk.
Nevertheless, Chronicle would have fallen apart if the three main characters and their respective backgrounds didn't feel sincere. Andrew, Matt and Steve could have been pigeonholed into stereotypical teenage character types, but the script and the lead actors don't let them. The boys' bonding over their shared power allows us to see how they differ from each other and how they are alike, and this bond ably facilitates the movie's transition from superheroic fantasy to bone-crushing horror. In fact, it is an honest gesture of friendship that one of the boys does for another that sets in motion the tragic events that lead up to the film's disastrous and heartbreaking end. If there's a moral lesson in Chronicle, it is that even the most well-meaning and innocuous usage of power--say, to impress peers at a high school talent show--can have extremely severe consequences under certain circumstances. From this perspective, the boys in Chronicle have more in common with the tragic heroes of ancient Greek myth than with the superheroes of modern pop culture.
As a horror fan, I was impressed at how well Chronicle connected the symbolic and thematic commonalities between the superhero and horror genres. Even though capes-and-tights stories are usually played for action-packed thrills or tongue-in-cheek camp, the idea of a supremely powerful human being is actually an extremely terrifying idea. This is one of the reasons why I still appreciate the two recent live-action Hulk films, since they are among the few superhero films of late that are willing to tread so close to the fine line that separates superheroic melodrama from uninhibited terror.
Chronicle is a kick to the gut of the superhero genre, stripping away the colorful facade of the typical superpowered do-gooder to reveal the vulnerable and volatile emotional landscape that lies underneath. I highly recommend this film.