Teenaged boy with a drunken, abusive dad and a sick mom. Lovelorn and lonely. Bullied and picked on at school. Bit of a loner.
Full of rage and feeling very ineffectual.
And now he’s got superpowers.
Beautiful thing about Chronicle is that it is the superhero origin story we have become so very familiar with — over the course of 80 years of comic book mutants and 40 years of superhero flicks — in its purest form, stripped of all the pulp and all the camp that has accreted around the genre. The work of writer-director Josh Trank and cowriter Max Landis (son of John), both with only a handful of TV and shorts credits to their names, this is an “Oh my god, I’m suddenly a mutant!” tale as it might be if we had no legacy of X-Men and Superman and the Avengers… or how Carrie might have been had Stephen King taken his inspiration from them.
Carrie and where it took its protagonist hangs very much in the air here. “Is Andrew on his way to becoming not a superhero but a supervillain?” is the question that pops into one’s head early on in Chronicle — and it’s a startling question because the film grants us Andrew’s very intimate perspective on the world. He’s bought a video camera, you see — “I’m filming everything,” he warns that violent father — and the story is told mostly via Andrew’s haphazard video diaries, which consist of him just “filming everything.” It creates in us a persuasive sympathy with Andrew, seeing the world through his eyes, feeling all the hurts and the slights and the stings alongside him… which takes on a potent extra kick when one considers that superhero tales have always appealed to our own feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness.
We like Andrew, then, because he speaks to something small and scared in all of us, and we like superhero tales because they give us a temporary respite from those feelings. We fantasize about being powerful. We fantasize — at least, I think most of us would — about being magnanimous to those who have hurt us. We’ll show them, we imagine, merely by suddenly being more powerful than we once were, more powerful than our tormentors, and not becoming a bully like them.
But not Andrew. He does some very unsettling things with his emerging powers. So suddenly here’s us worried whether we’re identifying with a budding Magneto. (That’s X-Men’s megabaddie, for the really uninitiated. Though I’m not sure how much those deeply unfamiliar with superhero tales will appreciate how special this flick is.)
Then again, Peter Parker was a shy, bullied dork before he got bitten by that radioactive spider, and he didn’t go to the Dark Side as Spider-man. So Chronicle could go that way, too…
It’s like this: One of the everythings that Andrew (Dane DeHaan) films is the weird discovery his cousin, Matt (Alex Russell), and their schoolmate, Steve (Michael B. Jordan, the most experienced of the all-around impressive newcomers, with bunch of TV credits), make in the woods. Down in a suspicious hole in the ground is a… thing. It’s sorta crystalline. It’s sorta alive. It whines. It pulsates. It makes Andrew’s camcorder go all wonky. It gives the boys nosebleeds… and then it gives them telekinetic abilities.
Maybe the thing is alien. Maybe the thing is a government experiment gone awry. It doesn’t matter — Chronicle is not that kind of story. It’s about the guys discovering how giddy with delight they can be at learning what extraordinary stuff they can now do. And the film makes us giddy too. There’s nothing in the boys’ new talents that we haven’t seen before in a thousand other movies about people with superhuman abilities, and yet, Trank manages to make us feel as exhilarated as they do. We haven’t seen a superhero story as human as this before. Maybe never. Part of that comes from the removal of the corniness that inevitably comes in the wake of people who can fly or move stuff with their minds or whatever, as if such outrageousness must be taken with a grain of salt, simply cannot be taken seriously.
Oh, there’s humor in Chronicle. But there are no one-liners, no snarking, no winking. It feels urgent in a real-world, real-consequences way as we see Andrew tempted toward using his new powers for the less-than-good and his friends trying to bring him back. The found-footage nature of the presentation lends it a unique credibility: even as we know intellectually that we’re looking at things that have absolutely been created with special effects, there’s an authority to the visuals that comes from their casualness, and from the film not lingering on them.
But perhaps the most intriguing thing about Chronicle is that it makes us reconsider the terms superhero and supervillain entirely. No one here can be reduced to such black-and-white terms: they’re just people doing the best they can with what they have. It’s just that they suddenly have so much more than the rest of us.