There’s a real case to be made for the return of the B-movie to modern cinema screens: compact, smart, fast-paced films that don’t bear all the burden of being spectacles big enough to shake worlds or justify their existence with extended, eventful running times. Chronicle, a surprise hit earlier this year, is a B-movie in both length – it caps off as barely 80 minutes long, not counting credits – and essential creed, in spite of the glitzy special effects, as a clever and dexterous spin on the screen-hogging glut of superhero flicks. Chronicle develops a basic theme with a reasonable, if hardly watertight, internal logic that is both intelligent and beguilingly unpretentious. Directed by Josh Trank, working from a script by Max Landis (son of John), Chronicle is the latest in a nascent side-stream to the superhero movie craze positing more “realistic” takes on the genre, also including Peter Berg’s Hancock (2008), Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass (2010) and James Gunn’s Super (2011). Each of these movies handle their takes in a very different fashion, which ultimately puts them at odds less with each-other than with specific exemplars of the genre they’re both lampooning and elevating to new levels of scrutiny: Super is to Christopher Nolan's Batman films as Kick-Ass is to Sam Raimi's Spider-Man series. Whereas Hancock presented the basic gag of an unlikeable crud stricken with superpowers, the other two mostly focused on the distaste of the vigilante aspect of the superhero mythos, whilst also exploring the charm of costumed adventuring to troubled outsiders. Chronicle distinguishes itself by choosing as its core subject the appeal of the genre to teenagers, the way the superhero motif reflects and exploits their desire to be popular and powerful, and also channels their anxieties over being different and perhaps not meant to live conventional lives. Chronicle recognises that such power in the hands of damaged and still-forming people might be terrible. To illustrate his themes, Trank takes on the found-footage movie, which by now ought only to elicit groans of pain, and manages to expand its palate with some wit. Ultimately, the strongest story template for Chronicle is not the superhero tale at all, but Stephen King: it’s basically Christine rewritten as superhero origin story, transferring King’s template from one realm of the fantastic to another.
Whilst not exactly subtle or involved, Chronicle works because it squarely captures the internal and exterior state of antihero Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), who is caught between the eternally elusive promise of conventional fulfilment, the hope of adulation, and a relentlessly Darwinian viciousness underlying this portrait of modern American life. Bullies of all strips pervade the social scenery, oedipal rage is stoked to extremes whilst the harsh reality of mortality corrodes restraint, financial worry is pervasive, and humiliation and violence wait around many corners. Andrew has a mother, Karen (Bo Petersen), slowly dying, and an abusive, alcoholic father, Richard (Michael Kelly), who takes out his frustration and anger on his son: he’s introduced kicking on the door of his son’s bedroom, demanding admission. Andrew pleads for his father, obviously drunk, to leave him alone. Richard departs but later, when Andrew’s guard is down and his door open, enters and punitively clobbers his son without warning. Andrew is, understandably, socially reticent and barely able to express himself, and he’s taken to filming himself and his life to develop a sense of detachment, and his only real friend is his glibber but not much more accomplished cousin Matt Garetty (Alex Russell). When Matt convinces Andrew to go to a party, his camera-pointing earns the aggression of possessive alpha males, whilst he and Matt encounter the wryly dismissive Casey Letter (Ashley Hinshaw) who’s engaged in a similar video project, on whom Matt has a serious crush. Later in the evening, Andrew is dragged into the woods by the school’s heroic jock wannabe politician Steve Montgomery (Michael B. Jordan), who wants him to film a bizarre phenomenon he’s come across. Andrew, Matt, and Steve climb into a hole in the ground from which emerges rumbling sounds, and encounter a mysterious, clearly alien machine that departs rapidly and leaves them unconscious, unsure of exactly what befell them. They shortly find they’ve been changed by contact with the craft: they now have powers of advanced telekinesis.
Soon the young trio are levitating objects and then themselves, flying amongst the clouds and having close encounters with jets: when both Steve and Matt are nearly killed by a passing plane, Andrew saves them. The three lads bond with genuine friendship in their shared capacities, in spite of their previous places in different stratum of high school life. Steve convinces Andrew to use his powers sparingly to make a splash at a high school talent contest. Andrew is transformed from outcast to lusted-after hero, but this lasts only a couple of hours, as he makes a fool of himself vomiting over a girl who seduces him. The three soon prove to have been linked more deeply, however, as all are beset by spontaneous bleeding and vomiting when one uses his powers in an extreme manner. The darker potential of the gifts rises to the fore as Andrew, who first signals a reckless, reactive sense of his power by swiping a pushy driver off the road, is stoked to a homicidal rage by his father’s browbeating, both emotional and physical. Andrew responds by clobbering his old man and retreating into the clouds to brood. When Steve comes to talk him down and tries to reach out to him, he is instead fried by the lightning Andrew is generating. There’s a clever metaphorical directness here for the way the need to be admired and loved, and nihilistic anger and negativity, can simultaneously afflict the unhappy adolescent, taking the familiar dynamics of this process and inflating them through the motif of superpowers. At the same time, Chronicle feels weirdly keen to its moment, grasping a dichotomy of aggression and depression besetting recessionary America, and the popularity of escapist fantasies of empowerment in our time, with Andrew clearly beset as much by class anger as by social dysfunction or emotional issues: with his mother dying and his compensation-bum father tormented by his inability to take pay for her medicine, Andrew lives in a neighbourhood where the streets are filling up with unemployed young scrubs who also use him as targets. As Andrew gains greater control over his power, he becomes increasingly volatile, and starts lashing out with his gifts: the iconic conflicts of Peter “Spider-Man” Parker and his bully Flash are maliciously recast here as Andrew crowingly displays for his camera the teeth he’s knocked out of a tormentor’s jaw with one good telekinetic wallop.
The challenge of the found-footage genre is in its “look ma, no hands” quality, as special effects that might seem relatively mundane in other contexts become unusually thrilling in the unblinking faux-verisimilitude, and Trank gets the most out of this aspect. And yet he also revises the form considerably: rather than found footage per se, he’s showing footage as it is shot, for later it’s revealed that several scenes we’ve witnessed were recorded on a camera that is lost. As he develops his gifts, Andrew takes to listlessly filming himself by levitating his camera and letting it drift over his bed, allowing him to show off his power and make himself the subject of his camera’s gaze, uncovering the outright narcissism technology allows so many to uncover these days, deepened by Andrew’s desire to be desired and to wield power. With his gifts he now neglects trying to shoot attractive exemplars of a richer, flashier, sexier world, and becomes his own fetish: such is a conceptual by-play between object and image that wouldn’t be unworthy of Brian De Palma at his best. This touch also allows Trank to brazenly toss out some of the rules of the found-footage style, as Andrew can argue with friends and perform feats of legerdemain whilst shooting himself in elegant overhead tracking shots, quietly reasserting fluidity to the image. The finale, taking place in the centre of Seattle, exploits the many security cameras in such a setting for a constant, dynamic shifting of perspective, allowing Trank to have his set-piece cake and eat it too. Not all of Trank’s attempts to expand the lexicon are convincing, nor all of Landis’ script flourishes well-fulfilled: Casey is easily the least satisfying character in the film, existing basically to get another major camera perspective in on the more humdrum drama, with her and Matt’s relationship left vague and heading nowhere.
In spite of its detectable dead spots, however, Landis’ script manages to bring conceptual and thematic depth to the essential conceit, exploring not simply the notion of people we’ve all known, or perhaps been, being suddenly beset with great power at a moment when they're least equipped to handle it, but also offers connections that the superhero genre usually neglects. Before he begins to go mad, Andrew wants to go to Tibet to speak to monks who it is said have achieved similar powers through meditation, thus bringing a crypto-spiritual edge to the fantasy. The sense of a lack of structuring ethics and moral depth in the face of an all-consuming, all-powerful obedience to raw power, be it physical or financial, is constantly reiterated through the film, questioning the usual assumption of the superhero tale, that the individuals blessed with such gifts have ingrained morals and can resist the temptation to play god. Andrew begins to style himself as an “apex predator” as a new form of life, and by the time he is badly wounded attempting to use his power to rob a gas station to pay for his mother’s medication, his mother actually already dead and his father precipitates a final eruption into chaos as he assaults Andrew’s already fragile psyche in his hospital bed. Andrew begins an inchoate rampage, complete with attempted parricide, which conflates teen temper-tantrum and Godzilla-like destruction, enacted upon downtown Seattle, with Casey caught up in the tussle of best friends. Matt tries to talk his friend down from his hysterical warpath, but finally has to use his own powers to bring him down. The final image, of Matt depositing Andrew’s camera upon a Himalayan peak overlooking a temple, not only returns to the spiritual refrain and lends weight to the story’s implicit message - that gaining knowledge as both superhero and individual personality entails a kind of transcendence experienced only through poles of suffering and discipline - sees Matt now ennobled as the conscientious remaining heir of the initial trio’s powers, and possibly now himself to become a proper superhero. It would be a mistake to praise Chronicle too highly, for the qualities that make it a refreshingly non-belaboured tale also ultimately limit its reflexes and insights to fairly blunt essentials, as it leans on a lot of clichés and truisms familiar from the teen-flick and superhero genres, and it lacks the vibrant, genuinely creative generic anarchy of Kick-Ass and Super. But it’s still a surprisingly compelling gambit that takes what could have been a tiresome one-joke notion and invests it with force and invention.