For a first-time feature director, Chronicle is a hell of a slick product. And Josh Trank has quickly become Hollywood’s golden boy, being courted to direct a Fantastic Four reboot on the heels of Chronicle‘s release. And there’s no arguing against so much of what Chronicle does right. Yet, so much of what Trank has done here seems to be such a pre-meditated calling card for selling out, from the use of the found footage genre to the way he quickly mines genre cliches, that it somewhat sours some of the originality of the telling.
Chronicle follows the story of three high-school students who discover a buried meteorite and develop telekinesis as a result. But the film sticks closely with a very intimate portrayal of the students, and it’s here where Chronicle is at its best. Andrew, played by Dane DeHaan, is probably his high school class’ biggest outcast. And he’s only along for the ride with his cousin Matt and Matt’s best friend, star jock and popular golden boy, Steve, because Matt is concerned about his anti-social cousin and the way Andrew’s bed-ridden mother’s cancer and his resultant alcoholic and abusive father have broken Andrew’s spirit. Andrew’s a weird kid, the kind of kid who finds it hard to connect with others, who find it hard to connect with him. And his situation at home has made it that much worse. Matt is a bit smarter than your average jock. He reads philosophy on his own time, and has developed a resentment towards high school politics and the lazy social conventions of other kids his age, which is probably largely why he cares enough to try to keep getting through to Andrew. And this is where Chronicle goes off the tracks into cliche. As sharp and natural as some of the writing is, there’s also a side to it that’s very CW-esque or calls to mind the worst aspects of self-aware teen television like Dawson’s Creek. And as dark as the movie gets, the way it falls back to conveniently rely on some of these trite tropes, knocks the film off-center from its intended target, a sharper and more resonant version of itself.
I doubt that everyone will have these same criticisms. In effect, Trank and co-writer Max Landis (son of film director John Landis) are definitely courting the mainstream. And considering their industry pedigree, they certainly know what they’re doing. Again, that’s what makes the film a little too self-conscious and intentionally manipulative, but on the other hand, they’re successfully connecting with audiences and achieving their goal.
And for all of the lazy genre shorthands they take, they do also get as much right. First and foremost being the personal, intimate style of the narrative and the casting and performance of Dane DeHaan. It’s quite instantly obvious that DeHaan is going to be around for a long, long time; he resembles a younger Dylan Baker, and has all the poise, craft, and talent of a much older character actor. He and Michael Kelley, who plays his abusive father, are both talented enough that they overcome a lot of the underwritten cliches of their relationship and the brief screen time it receives. And really, at the end of the day, it’s Dane DeHaan’s show. The special effects during the climax are impressive, but a lot of the early work when the audience is focused on simple objects moving slowly is lacking, and visibly so. But DeHaan’s presence compensates.
The single-most impressive aspect of the film is how it builds into a finale that calls to mind Akira, during a time when Hollywood is so focused on creating a live-action version of the famous and beloved anime classic. There have been so many stalls on the project, because taking the action out of Japan and bringing it to America robs the plot of its historic ties and essence. For a movie about Japan post-Nagasaki and the way that bombing affected Japan’s national collective psyche, and the manner in which it has specifically affected the teenagers of the next generations, it seems pointless to try to adapt it to a different locale. It seems likely that the intention is to adapt it with 9/11 taking the place of the Nagasaki bombing, but the tragedy is different enough that it would probably be better just to start fresh with a new idea evolving out of 9/11 itself. But Hollywood does love the perceived safety of name-brand recognition. Back on point, Trank has essentially beat the Akira live-action adapters to the punch, fashioning a third act visibly similar, which doesn’t attempt to get there through some skewed twisting of the original material. Or perhaps it’s simply a shameless steal from an insufferable hack job; and I suppose only time will reveal that. But the finale is executed with such energy and style and verve that it succeeds in the here and now on its own merits.
However, the final sometimes-failing of the film is the found footage genre itself. While it does help to keep the perspective intimate and personal, it also necessitates conventions that have already grown tired. In order to include scenes between Matt and his romantic interest, she then needs to be as big a camera geek as Andrew, ever-recording her life. And it just rings terribly false and unnecessary, but the only real option to justify those scenes. And as for Andrew’s recording, much of it is done quite effectively, but there are time when the fact that he’s filming something or the way that he’s filming something feels forced. And by the end of the film, though the climax is exciting enough as it plays out that it distracts sufficiently, the logic behind all of the shots, how most of them are taken from public cameras and how or why they would end up put together narratively for an audience, while other shots are seemingly not even from borrowed camera perspectives at all, destroys some of the good will the film has earned previously. It’s not something that will likely bother an audience during the watching, but it may bother them afterwards, when they realize how little sense it all made.
And to be clear, this isn’t really found footage, in the sense that Cloverfield was literally supposed to be footage that had been found after the fact and repossesed. For the critiques of that film, at least it did an unerring job of staying true to the narrative conceit it set for itself, even when it made some audiences queasy with its shaky-cam. But Chronicle tries to have it both ways. It wants to be authentic with its perspective from Andrew’s cameras and a few others, but this isn’t something that has been cobbled together for an audience to see; that’s not a part of the narrative. And as such is the case, why not simply shoot the film combining the perspective of Andrew’s camera with a more traditional third-eye perspective? Since the genre here isn’t truly defining itself as found footage, there’s nothing that says you can’t split the convention and have it both ways. Perhaps the creative team lacked the faith that the audience could watch a film split like this, or perhaps they thought that it would lose some of the intimacy of the perspective. But there are as many other problems in the film resulting from the way that it is shot, and that are quickly becoming enormous limitations of the genre, particularly when those limitations aren’t fully embraced and the director keeps trying to cheat it. And this, of course, adds to the feeling of Chronicle being just a bit too savvy and manipulative for its own good, knocking it back a step from its full potential.