By Toussaint Egan
Chronicle is a superhero origin story for the viral video generation. The super-powered psychic epic that the live action ‘Akira’ adaption deserves to be but will inevitably fall sort of. Like his contemporaries Duncan Jones and Neil Blomkamp, first time director Josh Trank has breathed new vitality into the science fiction film genre and managed to reinvigorate some of the common tropes of the documentary styled sub-genre of “found-footage,” creating intense and interesting new takes on first person perspective that range from being ingenious to downright defying plausibility.
The film follows the story of Andrew, Matt and Steve, three high school students from Seattle, Washington. Andrew is the main character, and the majority of “footage” that makes up the film is from his own camera with which he has developed an almost obsessive habit of filming everything. He is a loner, a child from a broken home with an abusive father and critically ill mother, desperately looking for an outlet or some outside validation of his own worth. Matt is Andrew’s charismatic cousin who reaches out to bring Andrew under his wing, pushing him to socialize more and break free from the domineering presence of his father. After being brought to a local party by his cousin and subsequently humiliated and ostracized, Andrew meets Steve, a popular student from his school running for class president. The three of them go out into the woods in search of a rumored mysterious cavern crater outside of the party’s location. After uncovering and entering this crater, the boys encounter a strange alien-like structure that grants them advanced telepathic abilities. What follows afterwards is a recording of events that lead to exploration of their powers, a bond of friendship these powers give them and inevitable consequences that come with these great gifts.
The first major high point of the film is when the trio master their cognitive abilities enough to propel themselves into flight, and that’s only a half-intended pun. It is a beautiful, breathtaking experience watching these fast made friends exploring the reach of their powers, fooling around and even saving each other’s lives; bonding that much more for the experience. Unfortunately, like so many other stories of great power and greater responsibility, one cannot help but recognize that this is only the calm ascent before the fall from grace.
Besides watching these guys display their new talents, the most engaging part of the film is watching their personalities develop and grow over the course of the movie. For instance, Andrew’s cousin Matt is first depicted as being self-absorbed and fancies himself a ladies man with an annoying habit for spouting off faux-philosophic quips in an attempt to come off as worldly or profound. However, over the course of the film he visibly becomes more humble and responsible when taking into account the tremendous influence his new-found powers possess.
If anything, Andrew is the true philosopher of the group. He’s a meek and unassuming social pariah, bestowed with an intoxicating amount of power and steadily becomes more obsessed with the exercise and refinement of his abilities, eventually becoming possessed by an unnerving desire to become the “Apex Predator”among human beings.
There’s a reason why I draw so many favorable comparisons between this film and Katsuhiro Otomo’s iconic 1988 manga and anime. It’s because the thematic and visual similarities between the two are so numerous and uncanny that I wouldn’t be surprised if Josh Trank looked to Akira for inspiration or considered it a spiritual predecessor. At the crux of both, they are stories of young disassociated youths, starved for the compassion and validation of their peers, who are gifted in an instant of ominous serendipity with god-like psychic abilities. Viewers will watch them revel in their initial triumphs, learn through the trials of controlling their powers and, slowly but surely, see them tragically transform into from adjusting introverts into psychotic superhuman monsters. But they are also the stories of the friends and loved ones who surround them, inadvertently swept up in the consequences of their actions, and who take it upon themselves to avert their friend’s destructive descent into madness, if not out of responsibility then out of love.
However, a major weakness of Chronicle that I found while watching was that it never explains, explicitly or implicitly, as to how the footage of the film is compiled or how it influences the world in which the story inhabits. The techniques and tropes of “found footage” are specifically tailored to portray extraordinarily unbelievable situations within a bubble realm of plausibility, by depicting the events as if they occurred in the “real world.” Why tell a story through this first person perspective when that footage is never technically “found”within the events of the story and the viewer never learns of what the consequences of finding said footage are? Even Cloverfield justified the approach of filming the way it was by hinting at the beginning of film that the video recording that comprises the film had been retrieved from the decimated ruins of New York City on behalf of Homeland Security. Why don’t we have something like that in this film that justifies why it is being viewed the way it is instead of as just another regular action film structured with established camera angles and shots? I found it bizarre to realize mid-way through the film that my suspension of disbelief was constantly broken from the nagging persistent question as to where exactly the camera was and what plausible “real world” reason would it be doing there. For all of its breathtaking flight and fight scenes, the novelty of a story like Chronicle in the way in which it is told, through an unbroken first-person perspective, can carry a film only so far. The limitations of a specific form of filming can only be stretched so much before it becomes impractical to film it that way in the first place.
Fortunately, Chronicle is an entertaining enough film as a whole to surmount these hurdles of questionable perspective, at least for the most part. With all that’s been said, let there be no confusion as to my honest opinion about Chronicle; it’s a great film. Chronicle just doesn’t do enough to transcend or fully take advantage of the novelty in which it is filmed. I can’t name many first time directors off the top of my head that have taken such a worn out convention and successfully breathed as much new life into it as Josh Trank has done with Chronicle. I would recommend this film to anyone looking for an engaging action movie experience with poignant, relatable characters.