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'Chronicle' achieves new heights for genre

Reeling It In

Posted: February 16, 2012 - 9:10am
AP Photo/20th Century Fox, Alan Markfield
Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, and Dane DeHaan are shown in a scene from “Chronicle.”

"Chronicle"
Film Afrika Worldwide
1 hour, 24 minutes

I'm a big fan of the superhero/comic book movie genre, but even I've got to admit it's kind of been done to death. It's been constructed and deconstructed so many times over the last 10 or 15 years that it seems like there would be nothing left to say. We've seen the heroes portrayed as heroic, anti-heroic, anti-social, and even insane. Some of the films have felt as light and insubstantial as cotton candy, while others have been as dark and heavy as a ship's anchor. I wouldn't say this week's entry, "Chronicle," about three teens who mysteriously acquire psychic powers, brings anything new to the table in a narrative sense, but it does manage to revitalize another tired genre -- found footage.

The film opens to our protagonist essentially introducing himself in the mirror. He's not talking to us, however, but to his new camera, procured as a defense against the rages of an abusive drunken father. Andrew, played with hollow eyes and a fragile intensity by Dane DeHaan, decides that the camera will be his armor, not only against the violence of home, but the abuses of the outside world as well. The character that Andrew embodies is well known, especially to comic book fans -- shy, smart, picked on and put-upon. Were it not for his alcoholic father and his mother, slowly and painfully dying of cancer, Andrew could be Peter Parker. Unfortunately, that's not how things turn out.

Soon after Andrew begins taking his camera with him wherever he goes, we meet Matt, Andrew's popular, philosophical cousin. Matt, hoping to bolster his awkward cousin's confidence, invites Andrew to a party being held in an abandoned industrial building out in the country. While there, we are introduced to Steve, class-president and all-around popular guy. He tells Andrew that he and Matt, while goofing around out in the woods, have stumbled upon a strange old mine-shaft complete with an eerie light and creepy noises. "Come on," he says. "And bring your camera."

What the three find is difficult to describe, and the presence of the camera does little to clear it up. Suffice it to say that before long, our heroes begin to notice something very strange. They can move things with their minds. It starts out small -- baseballs, rocks -- but before long the boys realize they can go bigger. Moving someone's car in the parking lot as a joke is no big deal, as easy as making stuffed animals float in the toy store to scare some random tot. But when our heroes realize that they can move themselves -- can fly for all practical purposes -- the movie really takes off.

Unfortunately, even superpowers can't change the tragedy of Andrew's home life, and a cataclysmic collision between his old life and this magical new one is inevitable.

"Chronicle" is surprising on a number of levels. I wouldn't have been convinced, say, sitting in a pitch meeting, that this would have been any better than the myriad flops in either the teen hero genre ("I Am Number Four," anyone?) or the found footage genre ("Apollo 18," to name only the latest), but I would have been wrong. A combination of good actors, subtle yet effective special effects, and a serious, sometimes shockingly dark, script, come together very well.

As a superhero story, "Chronicle" is very much an origin tale, not burdened by any crazy costumes or elaborate villains. It's the meatiest part of any of these kinds of stories, before things get too silly or overly complicated. However, the story itself is overshadowed by the film style, and it's both a burden and a boon the film.

As a found-footage style movie, "Chronicle" achieves new heights, literally. The flying scenes are very cool, and because our heroes are telepaths, often the camera is actually flying away from its operator, giving us a wider view than is often associated with these films.

On the other hand, the hand-held aspect makes the scary stuff scarier, more intimate and immediate. It also, however, makes much of the film difficult to make out and carries the same inherent flaw that all found-footage films suffer from -- some of the audience is going to get motion-sick watching. My friend had to close her eyes through probably a quarter of the movie, not exactly what the filmmakers are going for.

Also, I'm not sure why this movie is presented as it is. Most of these movies either begin or end with some kind of explanation of why we are watching this footage. It usually goes something like, "This raw footage was found at the site of ... . It was never explained." But "Chronicle" has nothing like that. It includes lots of different kinds of footage from various people's cameras, security footage, even traffic cameras, but there's never any attempt to let us know who compiled it, or why. Somehow that feels like cheating. There has to be a reason why we are sitting and watching this home movie, but "Chronicle" is not forthcoming.

Actually, it's pretty obvious why this movie is presented as it is. If it weren't, no one would watch. As fresh and entertaining as the movie is, if it were just a straight story about three teens who wander into a mine shaft and come out with super powers, I don't think it would have ever gotten off the ground. As I said, these movies have been done to death. It took the combination of two tired genres to breathe new life into a old tale.

Grade: B+

"Chronicle" is rated PG-13 for some rather dark and shocking violence and adult themes. There are also repeated scenes of teens partying and drinking.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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