What if Peter Parker didn’t grow up in the presence of inspiring role models? What if, instead of Uncle Ben being wise and supportive, he had been drunk and abusive? Director Josh Trank and co-writer Max Landis seem to have considerable suspicion that the end result may not have been so heroic after all, if their debut film, Chronicle, is anything to go by. Serving up an explosive genre cocktail, the young filmmakers deliver a fresh, unconventional take on several well-worn concepts that gives their audience a lot to process.
Andrew Detmar (Dane DeHaan) is a troubled high school senior with a sickly, bed-ridden mother and an alcoholic, volatile father. The found-footage style camera work is established by Andrew’s decision that he will film “everything from here on out”. The justification for the video obsession is shaky, but feels unobtrusive enough. It also serves to illustrate how he is bullied at school and treated with a general disregard. When Andrew’s cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) and classmate Steve (Michael B Jordan) come upon a cavernous tunnel in the woods, they bring him along to document their exploration. The trio make their way down into the dank cave and come across a mystifying discovery. As they approach it, Andrew’s camera goes haywire before finally cutting to black. Several weeks and a new camera later, the story picks up with the three high-schoolers closer than ever and experiencing some very strange symptoms. They continue to film their various experiments and exercises, often to great comedic effect, but soon realise the severity of the power now within their grasp.
Chronicle shares quite a bit thematically with the aforementioned Spider-Man and other superheroes of his ilk. However, when Andrew effortlessly pulls apart a spider, he’s not only doing so in a literal sense. Trank inverts the traditional formula for what his protagonist should be and by the final act, the narrative is in a very different place from where Chronicle began. Laced with impressive visuals and a high impact climax, the film charges through its finale in a juiced-up manner that shifts focus to the film’s true hero. It’s all a great idea and there’s much innovation on display here, especially as Trank attempts to continue to explain away the camera angles and use. Unfortunately, the ambition of Chronicle means the found-footage concept is stretched to its very limits and not always convincingly. However, by that time, so much is happening onscreen, the rationale behind how it’s being captured matters less and less. While the exact origins of power source itself remains unexplained, it doesn’t hinder the plot; and that the lingering question is eventually acknowledged is a welcomed touch.
The cast here do a decent job, with Jordan appearing to have the most fun. From a character development standpoint there are some interesting decisions made along the way. The tragic progression of a central character is not as engaging or as gradual as it should be. With Chronicle so often evoking memories of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man it’s easy to think back to Alfred Molina’s masterful performance, encapsulating the sympathetic qualities of the villainous Doc Ock and wonder how poignant this film could have been had the transformation been better depicted. Still, even with such missteps, Chronicle is a pleasantly surprising blend that makes the most of its relatively paltry $15 million budget.
Mashing up tried and tested formulas, Chronicle puts an original spin on the proceedings and provides a busy 90 minutes mix of sci-fi, comedy and action as it explores the darker side of mysterious powers. For director Trank, Chronicle is an impressive, if imperfect debut; the tone may be uneven, but it’s worth sticking out this ride to its wild conclusion. While great power may come with great responsibility, there’s a guilty pleasure in seeing such power wielded irresponsibly and that unspoken temptation just may well resonate with audiences in a big way. 8/10