MOVIE REVIEW: Chronicle

CHRONICLE--  STARS

What teenager wouldn't dream of having superpowers?  All of us, at some point when we were that age, watched a movie or picked up a comic book to dream about possessing cool abilities that would set us apart.  However, what a teenager would do with those powers and what an adult would do is very different.  The motivational drive of today's "connected" teen surrounds popularity, notoriety, friendship, hormones, and social acceptance.  That's much different than the antiquated "with great power comes great responsibility" initiative of high school nerd Peter Parker when Spider-Man was created nearly 50 years ago in 1963.  While "getting the girl" and turning the tables on bullies are still high on the list of teenage motivations both then and now, the backgrounds and social situations of adolescents have changed from 1963 to 2012.  Peter Parker was a cutie pie raised by his wise aunt.  That strong character made him into a hero.  Not every teen is as wholesome as Peter Parker.  What if a troubled and bullied teen, who's not so supported at home, got a hold of superpowers?  That's the hook that sets apart Chronicle  from both other teen films and other superhero films.

Developed by the team of 26-year-old screenwriter Max Landis (the son of movie director John Landis of Animal House and Blues Brothers fame) and 28-year-old TV director Josh Trank, Chronicle, successfully and spiritedly, breaks surprising new ground into the superhero genre with its modern teen disposition.  At first, you only catch the self-documentary/"found footage" gimmick, but the movie elevates its game, literally and figuratively, as it progresses, creating an entertaining, interesting, and compelling addition to the genre.

Chronicle primarily follows the deeply troubled Andrew (Dane DeHaan of True Blood and In Treatment guest spots on television), who decides to begin documenting and filming his miserable life as a Seattle teen.  Saddled at home with an abusive former-firefighter father (Michael Kelly, last seen in The Adjustment Bureau) and a bed-ridden, terminally-ill mother, Andrew's only social outlet, besides the camera he starts to carry around, is his understanding cousin and classmate, Matt (Australian Alex Russell, making his American debut).  Matt's the classic even-keeled high school-er (not too popular, not too cool) who, begrudgingly at times, tries to get Andrew to open up and rise above his crappy home life.

When Matt drags Andrew along to a rave party, they cross paths with Steve (Michael B. Jordan of Red Tails), the school's star quarterback running for class president.  Steve has found a cavern at the fringe of the woods and needs Andrew and Matt to help him see what's inside.  Andrew naturally brings his camera.  What they discover blows them out of the cave and grants them telekinesis.  They hide their abilities from their friends and families and practice developing their rapidly escalating powers together.  Soon, they are flying and testing their limits until things go too far.

Chronicle does an outstanding job playing with the notion of what real teens would do with superpowers.  It really would be freezing flying in the air at 30,000+ feet.  Teenagers would clown around if they had the chance.  Furthermore, the movie plays that angle without any necessity to develop comic book-like mythology or roots.  None of these three teens are sewing costumes on their mother's sewing machine or changing their name to "Captain (insert cool name)."  They have personal and intimate lives and problems that keep them grounded in reality and not fantasy.  All three young leads, particularly Dane DeHaan playing Andrew, show remarkable talent for virtual newcomers thrust onto this kind of stage.  When their power clashes with their sensibilities, the talent to adapt comes out well.  The fact that they aren't familiar faces adds to Chronicle's believe-ability.

Josh Trank and Max Landis have arguably created the most realistic interpretation of superpowers ever done in movies and did so with a shoestring budget, estimated at just $12 million.  That's a drop-in-a-bucket compared to the $75 million of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance and the $200+ million of Green Lantern last summer.  Even on a small scale, that's still less than half of the $30 million used to make District 9 a few years ago.  That $12 million looks better and plays better than those other movies with ten times the budget of Chronicle.  That, in and of itself, is a remarkable achievement for a first feature for Trank and Landis.  

Using that point-of-view documentary camera style, Chronicle has a style reminiscent of Cloverfield, which may create a few queasy moments, but it never gets out of hand or lasts all movie.  When the movie ratchets into action later on, the brilliant POV camerawork spreads outward from just Andrew to the growing public witnesses around them smoothly and coolly.  With that ever-increasing scope matching the characters' increasing power, the movie delivers on its early character building with a stellar climax.  I'm personally excited to see what Trank and Landis can do with triple the budget and a big-time franchise.  With all due respect to (500) Days of Summer 's Marc Webb or James Bond veteran Martin Campbell, these two guys should have been making The Amazing Spider-Man or Green Lantern.  

LESSON #1: WHAT A TEEN WOULD DO WITH SUPERPOWERS-- The hook of the movie's point-of-view creates one of its lesson.  Like I introduced with the Peter Parker analogy, today's teens would treat superpowers differently.  Their immature nature would lend to as much inexperience and mistakes as it would wonder and playful mischief.  It's inevitable in Chronicle  that things escalate from fun and games to events with real repercussions.

LESSON #2: WHAT HAPPENS TO POWER IN THE WRONG HANDS-- In another reference to my opening anecdote, not everyone comes from the same wholesome backgrounds as the Peter Parker and Clark Kent types of the world.  Setting and environment matter.  For example, what if fate had Clark Kent's parents murdered instead of Bruce Wayne's?  Would Superman then be as dark and guilt-ridden as Batman?  What if Superman landed in the communist Soviet Union  instead of Midwestern America?  Would he still be the patriotic Big Blue Boy Scout?  Chronicle plays with similar "what if's" by granting  undeserved power to reckless and troubled characters, some in not the best neighborhoods.

LESSON #3: THE ABUSE OF POWER-- Both Lesson #1 and Lesson #2 lead to this final overriding lesson and theme.  Power in inexperienced hands and the wrong settings can definitely lead to the abuse of power.  For all three of our Chronicle teens, parental or mentor support is seemingly non-existent.  They operate with power unchecked by nothing more than each other.  Despite their powerful abilities to control just about anything physically and mentally, their immaturity and lack of support adds up to the chaotic opposite.