As a general rule, I’m getting pretty tired of the whole handheld-camera style of filmmaking. Too often, it results in convoluted, choppy editing that makes a movie difficult to follow. I, like many other viewers, enjoy being able to see what’s going on. There are exceptions to every rule, however – and “Chronicle” is one of them. More than that, though, “Chronicle” is one of the most intelligent movies I’ve seen in a long time.
“Chronicle” is a superhero movie of sorts – but not like any superhero movie I’ve ever seen. The film revolves around three high school friends – angst-ridden Andrew, nerdy Matt, and class superstar Steve – who discover a mysterious glowing object. This object grants them the power of telekinesis – the ability to move objects with their minds, and eventually, to fly. At first, their powers are merely a gimmick, used for pranks…but soon, things take a darker turn. Struggling to cope with a dying mother and an abusive, alcoholic father, Andrew finds solace – and popularity – in his newfound powers. Naturally, he uses his power to take revenge on the school bullies – starting a cycle of violence which quickly escalates.
The story is simple, but the execution is masterful. Heavily influenced by Stephen King, it blends straight-up action with psychological drama and hints of horror. It’s intense without being melodramatic or gruesome, and intelligent without being inaccessible.
To begin with, the cinematography is surprisingly good. Every single shot of the movie comes from an in-film camera of some sort: a handheld-camera shot might abruptly cut to a CCTV image in a gas station, which in turn could shift to a news camera aboard a helicopter. This constantly changing point of view is, surprisingly, one of the film’s best elements. It frees the camera from the constraints of most found-footage films, offering viewers a clearer glimpse of the action.
The acting is also particularly strong. Though none of the leads possess an extensive Hollywood pedigree, they’re all remarkably effective in their roles. It’s refreshing to see a film involving teenagers that doesn’t pack its cast with the heartthrobs-du-jour.
“Chronicle” also possesses one of the most thought-provoking subtexts I’ve seen in any superhero film. Many comic-book inspired films, like “Spider-Man” and “Superman,” still feel like distant fantasies: flamboyant costumes, gorgeous scenery, and predictable plots all contribute to an aura of unreality. Conversely, “Chronicle” possesses a stark realism, which inevitably gives rise to the question “what would you do if it happened to you?” The film’s characters offer three answers: Steve treats his powers as a game – little more than a party trick. Andrew uses his powers as a weapon to punish his tormentors. And Matt explores the philosophical and ethical implications of their abilities.
This gives rise to one of the film’s most fascinating elements: its stark indictment of naturalistic ethics. In a chilling monologue, Andrew explains that according to evolutionary theory, he is an “apex predator” and thus not bound by petty morality. “Do you feel guilty when you squash a fly?” he wonders aloud to the camera. The film’s suggestion is clear: under a purely humanistic worldview system, ethics cannot rationally exist. Whereas a film like “X-Men” simply celebrates evolution as a means of creating mutant superheroes, “Chronicle” explores the implications for morality.
“Chronicle” also contains a well-executed critique of human arrogance. When Andrew wonders aloud “Hubris? What’s that?” it’s not hard to see where the plot is headed. A particularly memorable tableau at the film’s climax further drives this point home: when man tries to become God, there are inevitable consequences.
Intellectual considerations aside, this is a very exciting movie. Though it starts off slow, it quickly ratchets up to a breathtaking, explosive finale. Given the extremely limited budget (a la “Paranormal Activity”), I was pleasantly surprised by its pulse-pounding climax.
This succeeds, in large part, because “Chronicle” is a character-driven movie. Many – if not most – superhero films are plot-driven (e.g., Green Lantern will face his gigantic monster enemy as it attacks Earth, because that is how superhero films function). The climax in these movies is therefore somewhat predictable: the hero will vanquish his enemy and rescue the fair lady, because that is how superhero films function. In a character-driven movie, the audience has no such security: anything can (and often does) happen. Witness, for instance, “The Dark Knight” – a film driven by the struggle between Batman and the Joker. Plot concerns remain important, but the plot is driven by the characters’ personalities rather than by writers’ preferences. Here, “Chronicle” succeeds brilliantly.
From an objectionable-content standpoint, “Chronicle” falls well within its PG-13 rating. Violence is fairly muted until the climax, but even then it’s more suspenseful than grisly (two particular instances notwithstanding). There are a handful of sexual references and a fair amount of profanity, but little more than you’d see in any other superhero flick. It’s not a film for the whole family, but neither does it push the boundaries of content.
So, should you see this movie?
If you enjoy superhero films or psychological thrillers, absolutely. “Chronicle” is smart, well-acted, and extremely exciting. It’s an excellent example of how handheld-camera movies should be made – I’m looking forward to seeing more of this director’s work. Highly recommended.
A thrilling, thought-provoking movie well deserving of its hype.
Normalized Score: 7.9