A Hero That's Not Super: Chronicle Reviewed

It's 'found footage' and about teenagers with superpowers, but has Chronicle got enough to set it apart from the Cloverfields and Spidermans of modern cinema?
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It's 'found footage' and about teenagers with superpowers, but has Chronicle got enough to set it apart from the Cloverfields and Spidermans of modern cinema?

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Mean, Moody, Malevolent... But Not Super!

‘What superpower would you have?’ you say to a bloke, ‘Oh, probably invisibility,’ he’ll say after some thought. ‘Why invisibility?’ say you, ‘Oh, you know,’ says he, proudly, ‘so I can stand in the ladies’ changing rooms and look at their vaginas.’

Well done, that man. Given the limitless possibilities of a hypothetical scenario in which you can legitimately run amok, not only have you demonstrated a chimpish, teenage lack of imagination and a loneliness that’s warped into silent and public onanism, you’ve also failed to realise that, when unobserved, women - even naked ones – almost certainly pick their noses, hock up greenies the size of cats and fart like cauliflower-nosed perma-sozzled trawlermen. Women, on the other hand and to their credit, rarely choose invisibility as ‘their’ superpower; they’re wise enough to know that if they really want to look at a man’s junk all it takes is a couple of turbo shandies and a request to see his ‘elephant impression.’

The other one’s flying, isn’t it - the 'most wished for' superpower - despite the inevitability that in the open air, at any speed above 25mph, wasps cease to taste like wasps and eventually just taste like pain. Just ask any moped rider or summertime cabriolet enthusiast - if, that is, they manage to clear enough of the viscous mulch of thorax, blood and hemolymph from around their tonsils to be able to tell you.

Oddly, most superhero films don't bother with such vital pondering. Nor, for that matter, do they devote particular time to showing what an average Joe or Josephine would do if superpowers were thrust upon them: they're out either slapping feckless muggers or emptying bank vaults within minutes. We're never privy to those early developmental instances where they’re using Force-push to trip up a gormless Labrador or push an annoying stranger’s face down into their soup.

Chronicle’s young trio of high school protagonists discover they’ve inherited superpowers and do the only rational thing: they begin cocking about, blowing up girl’s skirts and moving parked cars to giggle at the befuddled expressions of the returning owners. It’s refreshing, it’s truthful, and it’s very funny.

Chronicle’s young trio of high school protagonists discover they’ve inherited superpowers and do the only rational thing: they begin cocking about, blowing up girl’s skirts and moving parked cars...

But then, Chronicle isn’t exactly your average superhero film. In fact, it isn’t a ‘superhero’ film at all – in that none of the three particularly choose heroism – but a film about the effects that superpowers would have on real people, not just dishwater-dull, alabaster-moraled Peter Parker types.

Chronicle’s also filmed in the ubiquitous ‘found footage’ style coined by 1980’s infamous Cannibal Holocaust, popularised by 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and taken to tiresome (yet lucrative) extremes by last year’s Paranormal Activity 3 - a style of filmmaking yet to be utilised by the superpower genre. Chances are you’ve already formed your own opinion on films presented in this way, be it ‘oh, goody’, ‘oh for fuck’s sakey,’ or ‘Oh, I don’t give a tossy,’ but whichever bracket you fall into, Chronicle deserves your time. Because, quite simply, it is brilliant.

Andrew, Matt and Steve (Dane DeHann, Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan, respectively) encounter a mysterious hole running deep into in the ground. Boys being boys, before you can say ‘you can’t tell your arse from a…’ they’re in it, having a nosey around the chasmic chamber within. Andrew, who recently began filming his experiences (a result of a less-than-ideal home life), is able to capture everything on tape, as they make a discovery that changes each of them profoundly over the coming weeks. Over this time, and as Andrew keeps filming, we see the three’s powers gradually grow.

One of many great things about Chronicle is how much time it devotes to convincing you that having superpowers would actually be really great, subverting the tired notions of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ and all that loathsome, end-of-Scrubs gubbins.. The lads enjoy it, bonding over their shared, secret experiences, and use their abilities to get girls, mess with people and generally have a good time.

One of many great things about Chronicle is how much time it devotes to convincing you that having superpowers would actually be really great, subverting the tired notions of ‘with great power comes great responsibility’

And, for all its restrictions, the ‘camcorder’ style (and the naturalistic dialogue it facilitates) pulls you in to this otherwise fantastical tale. Each of the three main characters is rounded, precisely defined, and infinitely believable, thanks in no small part to Max Landis’ (son of John, film fans) witty, self-deprecating script. Successive plot developments (and this review is intentionally vague, plot-wise), under the extreme circumstances, are always believable ones, never stretching credulity beyond that required for the premise itself.

The film even has so much fun with the trappings of the ‘found footage’ style that it’s impossible not to be reluctantly impressed: in one scene, a character uses telekinesis to ‘pull’ a group of bystander’s cameraphones out of their hands, focusing them in a circle around him. The result? A complex sequence shot from twenty different angles, with no hint or explanation as to who actually edited the clips together. It’s so cheeky that it’s impossible to stay mad.

Once tensions begin to rise and turds begin flying awfully close to fans, the film switches to a tense, fantastically constructed series of action set-pieces, each one looking as if it alone could have swallowed the entire film’s incredibly frugal $15m budget. These scenes are somewhat inevitably reminiscent of Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield, which is high praise indeed considering that film cost twice as much to produce. Oddly, the only instances where the CGI wobbles are those depicting everyday items: Lego bricks or house spiders, bending to the telekinetic will of our protagonists, yet obvious plaudits must go to first-time director Josh Trank, who somehow manages to wring some genuinely stunning and effective sequences out of a relative pittance.

Chronicle is a truly impressive piece of work. Gripping, exciting, affecting, tragic, hilarious – the superlatives come easily when describing a film which, genuinely, has very little wrong with it. Those who aren’t fans of sci-fi will appreciate the character study on offer, while those who are sci-fi fans will want to see what happens when the lads learn to fly and stray a little too close to a passenger jet.

Chronicle, somehow, feels bold and new, despite the inescapable fact that everything it does has been done elsewhere before. Yes, we’ve seen superpowers. Yes, we’ve seen special effects-laden ‘found footage’. Yes, we’ve seen personal stories told through the prism of a fantastical premise. What Chronicle does is take all these familiar elements that have been used in other films and just does them a little bit better.

What we’re left with is easily the best time you’ll have at the cinema this week.

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