Chronicle review

Ladies and gentleman, meet the first absolutely must-see movie of 2012. Here's why Chronicle might just be the big surprise of the year...

Think back to the worst examples of Hollywood filmmaking. What comes to mind? An absence of truly interesting ideas. Two-dimensional characters. A lack of any real sense of build-up, drama or suspense sacrificed at the altar of big explosions and expensive CG effects. A ridiculously bloated running time.

Remarkably, director Josh Trank’s debut feature, Chronicle, flings itself wholeheartedly into blockbuster territory, but doesn’t succumb to its worst excesses. Unlike so many mainstream action films, it works because it’s an intelligently written drama first, and an explosive spectacle second.

Chronicle’s events will immediately recall some epic moments from classic movies and comic books, but these resonate so perfectly because they’re all rooted in an intimate story about three high school friends.

The first of these friends is Andrew Detmer (Dane DeHaan), a teenager who one day decides to record his day-to-day life on a cheap video camera. And what a depressing day-to-day life it is. Andrew’s mother is terminally ill, while his ex-fireman father (Michael Kelly) is a violent alcoholic who can barely afford to pay for his wife’s medication.

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A shy, awkward outsider, Andrew seeks refuge in his filmmaking, even if it does sometimes annoy his two closest friends – his philosophy-spouting cousin, Matt (Alex Russell) and charismatic, outgoing classmate Steve (Michael B Jordan). The trio grow closer still when an encounter with a strange, subterranean energy gives them remarkable powers of telekinesis.

As you might expect from a bunch of ordinary high school kids, the three friends initially use these powers to pull off a series of stunts and practical jokes – terrorising children with floating teddy bears in a toyshop, or flinging objects at one another with unerring accuracy. Gradually, their powers increase. “It’s like a muscle,” one of the friends suggests. “We’re working it out. Getting buff.”

Eventually, the boys’ powers become so extraordinarily strong that, in spite of Matt’s attempts to impose a few rules to prevent their being misused, things inevitably begin to go wrong. The results are explosive, dramatic, and truly affecting.

On a budget of around $15million, Trank has created a great-looking film. Forget any preconceptions you may have about Chronicle being just another found footage movie – a kind of Cloverfield with superpowers instead of a giant monster, perhaps. Its use of handheld cameras goes way beyond mere wobbling frames and dizzying point-of-view shots.

Trank comes up with all kinds of clever, imaginative ways of moving his camera around, and providing unique and surprising perspectives. He plays fast and loose with the subgenre, cutting from Andrew’s view to that of another character who’s filming events from somewhere else, or in some scenes, to black-and-white security cameras.

Far from being a gimmick, or an attempt to hop on a stylistic bandwagon, the idea of presenting the film through its characters’ lenses is an intrinsic part of Chronicle’s storytelling. There are moments in here that really wouldn’t have worked had they been shot in a traditional Hollywood fashion.

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Running to around 90 minutes, Chronicle is an urgent, lean and sinewy piece of filmmaking, shot and edited with quiet confidence. It evolves as events unfold; the cheap, grainy camera that Andrew shoots with at its opening soon gives way to a more expensive one, and his powers of telekinesis add a still further twist to Chronicle’s aesthetic.

The real reason Chronicle functions so well, though, is because its protagonists are so believable. Their actions, whether good, mischievous or downright nasty, all make logical sense, because their personalities are so well established.

Max Landis’ script is full of energy and economy, and the teenage banter is perfectly observed. The performances, too, are uniformly excellent – Dane DeHaan is particularly compelling as the film’s troubled focus. And as Chronicle reaches its final act, the care with which Trank and Landis develop the characters’ friendship is such that we’re fully invested in what happens to them.

Chronicle’s storytelling brilliance is best summed up in one brief sequence. At a high school talent show, Andrew takes the stage and uses his powers to pull off a series of conjuring tricks, among them a walk along a tightrope. But rather than immediately leaping around and revelling in his remarkable abilities, Andrew at first teeters and totters around awkwardly, provoking titters of derision and amusement from the spectators.

Then, like a true showman, Andrew starts to work his magic, with each trick building on the last in scale. By the end of his performance, the audience are clapping and cheering with appreciation, and with that, one of the school’s outsiders becomes one of its biggest celebrities.

This is precisely what Chronicle does. Arriving at the start of a year positively heaving with expensive sequels and comic book movies laden with special effects, this relatively low-budget debut treads a line to a perfectly judged conclusion, and barely puts a foot wrong along the way.

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For all the blockbusters due out over the spring and summer – many of which cost anywhere north of $100million – Chronicle is the movie they have to beat. It truly is that good.


5 out of 5