Superheroes! Zap! Biff! Pow! They seem so put-together when they’re covered in spandex, but as we all know from Smallville, it takes a while to get from having powers to being super. Chronicle is the latest “Found Footage” film to hit the theaters, and it shows three boys trying to become super-men after they get their powers on. It’s a film with tons of trippy, amazing scenes of superhero derring-do, but all the special effects in the world can’t cover for a weak storyline. As a wannabe comic book nerd, I’m bummed that a movie that came up with such a great premise failed to deliver a movie I cared about past the closing credits.
Remember high school? You either hated it, or it was the Best Time Ever and now you’re pumping gas or ghostwriting YA novels. Andrew, the male version of Carrie White of his local high school, has just bought a camera and has decided to film his day-to-day life. Cool burnout cousin Matt thinks that’s a lame way to hide from the world (and hey, it kinda is) but since Matt has no real interest in spending time with his cuz beyond the token morning ride to school, it’s a non-issue. That is until senior class uberdude Steve finds something in the woods during a party Matt dragged Andrew and Andrew’s camera to. When these three guys head down the rabbit hole — literally — they find something way cooler than Peter Parker’s radioactive spider. The next day, they’ve got powers. Powers that seem to get stronger and stronger every day. But the guys react to these powers differently; wanna guess what happens when they stop getting along?
This superhero film is super predictable for anyone who has seen a superhero ever in the history of ever. All-American guys Steve and Matt think their powers are pretty cool. Poor little geek Andrew thinks that these powers are the only good thing in his life. Granted, Andrew’s life is pretty craptastic, but it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes to see how this story is gonna play out. So why watch? The scenes of the guys trying to get a handle on their powers are pretty amazing. One amazing, jaw-dropping scene after another, leading to a final climax that almost goes overboard but not quite. Chronicle will now be the benchmark for other supernatural/superhero films, and a big round of applause goes to Mickey Kirsten and the folks at Shade VFX and Rhythm & Hues.
So what went wrong? The problem with Chronicle is that found footage and kickass FX aren’t enough. Found footage is a cliche nowadays, one step away from the slow-mo from The Matrix. Sure, both found footage and slow-mo are awesome, but what needs to be in place for a successful film is what always needs to be in place; a powerful story, engaging characters and a sense of connection. In Chronicle, there’s an amazing story and mind-blowing special effects, but the characters are boilerplate high schoolers you could see in any other teen flick. When the super-powering goes down, the makers of this film had a opportunity to show how these characters developed…but instead there’s a series of cool, cooler, coolest scenes that show you what’s happening, but not why. Unless someone is just plain-old unhinged, there needs to be a why.
The acting lifts this movie out of the For CGI Fans Only pile, with all three leads giving believable, gut-wrenching performances. Chronicle’s poor little nerdling is played by Dane DeHaan, who gives an amazing performance as the beleaguered Andrew. The “where the hell have I seen him before?”-O-Meter was tripping on high, then I remembered; he was an inbred were-panther in True Blood. His low-key, sad faced loser was effective there, and it’s cranked up to eleven in Chronicle. His bright blue eyes are so haunted and full of lowest-nerd-on-the-totem-pole pain that I wanted to reach through the screen and give him a hug and a cookie. The Wire‘s Michael B. Jordan as Steve and Alex Russell (Wasted on the Young) as Matt round out the trio of superness, and each turn in stunning performances. Michael Kelly plays Andrew’s douchebag of a dad, a character that seemed thrown together from every boo-his bad guy ever created. The guy’s so unmitigatingly awful that it’s a wonder Child Protective Services (or better still, cousin Matt’s parents) hadn’t stepped in years before. Ashley Hinshaw (The Glades) plays Casey, another camera toting teen, but her character is just a human tripod for Camera #2.
Max Landis’ story is intriguing, and I was definitely looking forward to this film’s take on the superhero myth. Unfortunately, his screenplay seems to be missing hunks of backstory. Or story-story. It’s not that he can’t spin a tale; his short pieces for Fear Itself (“Something With Bite”) and Masters of Horror (“Deer Woman”, assisting his dad John) are well done. Perhaps it’s director Josh Trank, a relative newcomer, that sewed the pieces of “footage” together without adding in anything that tells the audience why these guys do what they do. Hard to tell.
Chronicle is a prime example of a first-class story idea that collapses under the weight of it’s little disappointments. That’s a shame, because there’s a really interesting premise here, along with some top-notch acting by young stars I’m sure we’ll all see more of. But after the last superhero kapow fades away,Chronicle’s impact only lasts ’til you’ve left the theater.