“With great power there must also come — great responsibility.” This maxim, first delivered via narration in Marvel Comics’ Amazing Fantasy #15 (the August, 1962 issue in which Spider-Man made his debut), is perhaps the most widely recognized quote in comic book history. For half a century, it has been the ideological crux for one of the most beloved superheroes ever conceived. In the case of Chronicle, these wise words of caution can be seen to serve as the unspoken theme that sustains Josh Trank’s directorial debut. Through combining the ever-popular ‘found footage’ format with the trappings of a superhero origin story, Chronicle breathes enough originality into both to craft a unique and worthwhile cinematic experience.
Set in Seattle, Chronicle begins with a teenager, Andrew (Dane DeHaan), looking into his newly-acquired video camera, declaring that he is going to film everything from now on. Though he never expressly identifies why he intends to do this, it seems that Andrew is simply in need of a hobby to occupy his time and his thoughts. His mother is bedridden and struggling with cancer, while his father roams the house in a constant state of intoxication. He brings the camera to school, where his situation does not really improve. He is a loner who has next to nothing in the way of friends outside of his popular cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), who gives him a ride to school. Even though none of the faculty appears to notice or mind that Andrew is hefting a large camera through the hallways, he does not elude the attention of a bully who revels in the opportunity to amuse himself at Andrew’s expense. Needless to say, he is not the happiest kid around.
In an effort to help Andrew blend in and try to meet new people, Matt invites him to a rave, which he reluctantly attends with camera in tow. Later that evening he is approached by Steve (Michael B. Jordan), who urges him to bring the camera and follow him into the woods nearby where he and Matt have discovered a large hole in the ground. Tempted by a strange noise emanating from within, they venture into the hole and behold a large crystalline object emitting a bright blue glow. As they draw nearer, it turns a bright red and the boys are stricken with nosebleeds before the camera abruptly cuts out.
When next we see these youths, three weeks have passed. They have no recollection of what transpired in the cave (which has since been sealed off by authorities). Also, having left his rather nice camera behind, Andrew has since procured a (more petite) camcorder as a replacement. Compensating their confusion about that night is a tremendous gain: all three of them now have telekinetic powers. With newfound abilities of an uncertain potential, they do what most would do – especially at their age: they experiment. It starts with simple, juvenile efforts among one another and progresses into playing harmless pranks on unsuspecting people. Matt theorizes that perhaps their powers are like a muscle; that with continued, constrained usage they are gradually becoming stronger. Nonetheless, they continuously have to keep themselves in check, for overexerting themselves leads to severe nosebleeds.
Their jocular mischief comes to a head when Andrew uses his power to run a car off the highway in a moment of anger, landing the driver in the hospital with severe injuries. What is more troubling is that Andrew seems to be unconcerned with, if not altogether oblivious to, the fact that his actions almost killed someone. This incident inspires Matt to set a few ground rules concerning their powers, the most significant being that they are not to use them on other people. Despite this egregious hitch, the first forty-five minutes of the film are a mostly lighthearted affair, albeit laced with an undercurrent of brooding tension.
What makes Chronicle most compelling are the differing responses that the three characters have to their powers. Andrew sees it as a means of gaining control over his life, but this causes him to become more withdrawn and self-absorbed. He takes on an assumed superiority, asserting at one point that he has become an apex predator. This is fueled by a festering anger that is constantly pushed to its limits, threatening to burst at any moment. Meanwhile, Steve is the more carefree of the bunch. He has popularity, looks and talent, so he wants for little and uses his powers primarily to have fun. He finds joy in testing the boundaries of his capabilities, eventually discovering that he can fly (and promptly teaching the others how to do so). Matt, on the other hand, is more reserved. He remains cautious with his powers, exercising them regularly while silently contemplating a purpose for which to utilize them. He has strong feelings for a classmate, Casey (Ashley Hinshaw), but he does not seek to gain her affection through garish displays of the supernatural. If anything, his newfound strength has humbled him.
Also of note is how the boys’ powers have been implemented as part of the filmmaking process. Shortly after they begin exploring what they can do, Andrew starts using his mind to control his camera. This has two important effects, the first being that it allows the cinematographer more elaborate compositions and versatile camera movements not generally seen in ‘found footage’ films. Secondly, it eliminates the need for a character to always be holding the camera, thus allowing Andrew, Matt and/or Steve to spend the majority of their time within the frame instead of someone always being behind it. It is a clever excuse to cheat the limitations of the style and reinstate the camera as an omniscient spectator, and it works splendidly most of the time. More dazzling, though, is the final act of the film in which footage from various recording devices is spliced together. A riveting action sequence unfolds through the lenses of camcorders and cell phones held by flabbergasted bystanders, as well as security cameras and cameras from police cars and helicopters.
There are a few faults in Chronicle, but they are largely forgivable. Despite the liberty awarded the camera for much of the film, there are still sparse moments where the familiar query of “Why would they be filming this?” pops up. It is also criminally short, clocking in at just eighty-three minutes, and as such there are pertinent questions that linger when the credits arrive. Still, Chronicle is tightly paced, crammed with jaw-dropping special effects, and it builds to an astonishing climax that rivals any of those you will find in the vast sea of extravagant costumed-superhero productions. Furthermore, it is a keen observation of how immense power affects ordinary lives, particularly at a time when these three boys are just coming of age. No one comes away untested or unscathed, but the lessons learned are vital – especially in setting the stage for a sequel.
Indeed, as previously mentioned this is an origin film, and a successful box office performance has already inspired 20th Century Fox to task screenwriter Max Landis with penning a follow-up. At this point it is uncertain whether or not Josh Trank will return to direct, as he is currently in negotiations with Sony Pictures to direct Venom – a spin-off spotlighting the popular Spider-Man villain. Regardless, count me as one awestruck True Believer who looks forward to what the future holds.
Steven Harrison Gibbs is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
Director John Trank
Screenplay Max Landis (Story by Max Landis and Josh Trank)
Producers John Davis, Adam Schroeder
Director of Photography Matthew Jensen
Editor Elliot Greenberg
With Dane DeHaan (Andrew Detmer), Alex Russell (Matt Garetty), Michael B. Jordan (Steve Montgomery), Michael Kelly (Richard Detmer), Ashley Hinshaw (Casey Letter)